Friday, December 10, 2010

Michael Fremer Album Review

Armed Forces (reissue)

Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Radar/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-331 180g LP

Produced by: Nick Lowe

Engineered by: N/A

Mixed by: N/A

Mastered by: Shawn R. Britton at Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs



Costello Sees the World
by Michael Fremer
November 01, 2010

Elvis Costello took a quantum songwriting leap on his third album and with a generous six weeks in the studio following a world tour with new songs written, came up with intricate arrangements and sonically sophisticated production that while complex, was not detrimental to the intense propulsion of the music.

While the incorporation of worldly lyrical allusions seemingly took the singer's preoccupations beyond the “boy beats girl” theme of This Year’s Model there's plenty of that here too.

Though the opener, "Accidents Will Happen" is as sincerely written an anti-promiscuity song as you're likely to hear from anyone and smartly makes the point that the repercussions of the behavior have long lasting residual effects, the song doesn't preach its message. A well-crafted melody and heartfelt bridge help get a point across that should resonate with succeeding generations.

"Senior Service" returns Costello to the bile factory with a vicious corporate politics get even song: "I want your neck/I want the seat that you sit at/I want your cheque/Because they told me I would get on/I wanna chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket/If you should drop dead tonight then they won't have to ask me twice."

The album's hit single in England, "Oliver's Army," references conflicts around the world and hits an anti-war theme Costello would visit later during Margaret Thatcher's Falkland War, while "Big Boys" deals with the snags of love and if you don't know about the guy coughing during the line "She'll be the one-but it's too late for you to" you're not really intimately connected to this album, but you’ll hear it more clearly on this 1/2 speed mastered reissue than on the original.

The side ends with the sympathetic "Party Girl," which covers the same emotional terrain as The Police's "Roxanne" but with less "smarm" and greater true empathy. The song ends with a neat, musical hats off to The Beatles' Abbey Road. It's a genuine, old fashioned side-ender lost on CD.

Though Mobile Fidelity went with the original UK "elephants" cover, it chose the American release's side two track selection that omits the waltz "Sunday's Best," deemed "too British" for American ears. The song later turned up on the Taking Liberties compilation Columbia Records issued in 1970 along with other tracks omitted from earlier Costello albums.

The monumental anthemic single "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding" (credited to Nick Lowe) omitted from the original UK is here. It's a spectacular song and of course well worth having on the album, but it sounds tacked on and it's not really as good a closer as the cynical “love nest” of “Two Little Hitlers” with its ending refrain “I will return, I will not burn.”

“What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” was actually issued in the UK before the release of the album and as the "B" side to Nick Lowe's devilishly delightful "(I made an) American Squirm." The only clue to it's being on the flipside is that Lowe is holding a guitar with "Costello" pearl inlaid in the neck. Sly guys.

The recording and production, like the lyrics and melodies are wide open and generous. Pete Thomas's drum kit in particular is captured with an electrifying crack not heard on the also well recorded This Year's Model. Everything about the sound of this album is superior to the last one. The stage is far more spacious, the bass goes deeper and is tighter and the cymbal sound has an addictive chime.

I remember getting my first good moving coil cartridge (a Dynavector Ruby) shortly after getting a UK copy of this album and hearing those cymbal hits as they were meant to be heard. The whole drum kit is superbly recorded as is Steve Nieve's pleasingly florid piano work that here was textures and harmonics not previously heard even on the excellent UK original. If you only know this record from CD, you're in a for shock.

This is the Costello record where Mo-Fi's chain really demonstrates its clarity and purity. After the positive review here of This Year's Model we received a few emails from readers disappointed with the sound of that reissue because they felt it lacked the original's impact. I understand their point. It's true. However, that's because there's far less (if any) compression on the reissue so you do lose some of that pseudo-energy.

In its place though, you get more detail and far more textural information. Just turn the volume up slightly to compensate and you're sure to hear the clarity and precision of the images compared to the bright coarse and overly large ones resulting from the compression found on even the excellent UK original Radar.

Costello’s voice is far more natural-sounding here. The drums have more real texture, the cymbals cleanly rendered shimmer. The small dynamic shifts that bring the production to life, lost by compression, are here to enjoy. In fact, after you feel the need to crank it up higher at first, you’ll end up bringing the level back down to enjoy the album’s real sonic pleasures.

If the first two Costello reissues were mainly for the diehard fans, this one, so well-recorded in the first place, and packed with great tunes and equally fine production, is the first Costello reissue for everyone.

I have all of the CD reissues from Ryko to Rhino and this new 180g version beats them and even the original UK pressing, though that gives this some competition since it was cut from a fresh tape.

Reissuing Armed Forces in high quality 180g all analog vinyl is a public service in my opinion, even though Mobile Fidelity couldn’t possibly go to the time and expense of reproducing the original’s fold-open graphics and post card inserts.

Thanks to Michael over at for the exclusive rights to reprint this material. Stop by for more reviews and features.

Copyright © 2008 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved Reprinted by Permission

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