Records That Deserve Repeat Plays
In the fall of 1998, I got a call from my brother, Michael, telling me I had to hear a new Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach album, Painted from Memory. Burt Bacharach? Really? Sounded a little sappy for my 29-year-old self and tastes. I had been digging into Houses of the Holy at the time. But my brother is a professional musician, he currently writes and produces music for television in L.A., and not only does he know what I like, but I respect his taste, as well.
I went to Tower Records and brought home the CD. I gave it a spin and found it a little dull. We were on the phone later that day, and I told my brother about my experience with the album. "I know... totally...I hear ya...give it few more plays. I guarantee it will grow on you," he said. I kept the album in my car for the next week or two, listening to it again and again. And the more I played it, the more the songs burned into my psyche.
I had never spent time diving into Costello's deep catalog. I was a fan with an adequate knowledge of the great songs we all have heard for decades. But the more I listened to Painted from Memory, the more the arrangements seeped into my head. Costello's phrasing blew me away. Plus, the story songs – many detailing heartache, longing, lost love – are all brilliantly sculpted.
Fast forward nearly 25 years, and Painted from Memory is one of those albums I have listened to more times than I could imagine. I still play it all the time. It soothes me. I listen to it on every single flight I take. I go to sleep to it. So when Mobile Fidelity burrowed into the Costello catalog, I kept putting Painted from Memory at the top of my list. We got about 10 albums in and the project stalled. I kept asking Michael Grantham, head of licensing at Mobile Fidelity, about it, and he told me to be patient.
After a very long wait, the guys in the studio told me the analog reels for Painted from Memory had arrived, were in great shape, and sounded fabulous. Those of you who are familiar with Mobile Fidelity release schedules know that meeting timelines is not the label's forte. It took a while before a test pressing would come my way, but when it did: holy crap. I had only heard the CD until that moment. The LP was more than I ever expected and boasted spectacular recording quality. Since MoFi's edition was extremely limited and now sells for a couple hundred bucks on the secondary market, I'm worried I'm going to play the grooves off my copy. The SACD is extremely limited, too, with sonics that constitute the absolute finest the title will ever enjoy in the digital domain.
The lesson I learned: If I hadn't given this masterpiece the additional attention it deserved, I might have missed out on one of the greatest LPs I own. There have been many records I have dismissed, many loved by people I respect. There is so much music to play, and we all only have so much bandwidth. My point is not to dismiss things recommended to you by friends and family without having given them your full attention. You just might just find a diamond in the rough. I certainly did.
Today's Selection: Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach Painted from Memory
Painted from Memory is easy for me to describe: A dozen tunes composed by two brilliant songwriters, each with their own royal touches. When two legends come together to collaborate, the end results can be less than additive. But here, two generations of brilliant craftsmen work in tandem to deliver something very much like the magic Bacharach created with his longtime writing partner, Hal David. And the results ae more than additive; they are multiplicative.
Every song is brilliantly executed, each arranged with precision, and none go over the top. Costello is a great singer and known for his tremendous pop sensibilities. But here, his phrasing gets elevated to majestic heights. Listen to the songwriting. Every turn of phrase is perfectly placed. The lyrics fit the landscapes like a glove. Each song tells a story in such vivid detail, you can see each play out in your head like short films.
Under the masterful guidance of Bacharach, we have the Attractions' lauded pianist, Steve Nieve, drummer Jim Keltner, guitarist Dean Parks, and dozens of other incredible musicians and singers. All unite to create a sonic landscape so rich, it surprises me Painted from Memory is not an established audiophile classic. The music is equally remarkable.
Consider "In the Darkest Place," about a woman who knows she needs to move on; even her friends tell her starting again with the same guy is a bad idea. Relatedly, "I Still Have That Other Girl," concerns a man who has not yet recovered from a previous relationship. Listen to Costello's vibrato; the delicacy he applies to the lyrics is exceptional. Beautifuly structured, "This House Is Empty Now" addresses divorce, with lyrics attempting to figure out where things went wrong. The bridge contains one of the record's more memorable lines: "Oh, if I could just become forgetful when night seems endless/Does the extinguished candle care about the darkness?"
Yes, these are sad songs. And it's not like me to repeatedly sit through song after song about sadness and love lost. But every aspect of these works will likely touch you with a sense of sincerity and realism missing from most songwriting. I'm left with a smile on my face in spite of songs documenting loss, desperation, and chance.
"Such Unlikely Lovers" is about that very subject – a chronicle of a mismatched couple who unexpectedly find each other. Again, Costello's singing moves the needle. Ditto his performance on the title track, which journals more lost love. It's difficult to comprehend how the arrangement and phrasing was created to frame the oh-so-delicate vocals. Listen to the way Costello turns every phrase, each a syllabic masterpiece, with strings emphasizing his vocal longing. Again, every track on Painted from Memory exceeds expectation.
Play this album and give it your full attention. Listen to the impeccable arrangements, the intense lyrics, the sublime singing and performances. I'm confident you will hear what I do, and if not, you lose just an hour of time. But I remain fully convinced Painted from Memory warrants repeat listens. Please let me know if you agree.