Tuesday, July 29, 2008

182. The Attractions: Mad About the Wrong Boy (1980)

It's a story as old as time itself: Lead singer of a band, for whatever reason, leaves the band to strike out on his/her own. Slightly younger than time itself is the idea of said band moving on with a new singer. But rarely do you hear about a backing band simply making a record without their main guy. In 1980, Elvis Costello's backing band, the Attractions, did just that.

While they'll probably never get much credit for Costello's success, there's no denying that Bruce Thomas' melodic bass-playing, Pete Thomas' propulsive drums, and Steve Nieve's whirly organ/piano helped define and drive his nervy new wave pop sound.

In later years, the Attractions would show themselves to be gamely adept at keeping up with Costello's genre-bending ways. But Mad About the Wrong Boy shows little evidence of that diversity of skill, instead focusing on the new wave punch of Get Happy and This Year's Model (Armed Forces' sophistication is only slightly glimpsed).

Replacing Elvis Costello as a singer is really not much of a feat; his main draw as a vocalist is not his technical skill but his distinctiveness. As it is, both Nieve and Bruce Thomas (who share vocal duties on the album) are serviceable. The true shoes to fill are the melody and lyrics; Costello is one of the most celebrated songwriters of the modern age.

Obviously, the songs don't measure up, but that doesn't make them bad, just mediocre. Steve Nieve takes the bulk of the songwriting, composing 11 of the album's 16 songs. Some of these are listed as being written by Brain and Hart, which means Nieve wrote them with a girlfriend (some reports call her his wife) Faye Hart. Some notables include Straight Jacket, Talk About Me, Camera Camera, and the title track, all of which sound like they could have been The Jam b-sides. Single Girl incorporates the old "missed me, missed me, now you have to kiss me" melody. Taste of Poison is a truly weird song with a harsh lyric: "Wanna die in your car crash baby...all I need's a car...and you." Sad About Girls is the only one of these songs to be done by Elvis himself; you can find it as a bonus track on some of the Trust reissues.

Bruce and Pete Thomas (no relation, by the way) teamed up to write 5 songs, and theirs take advantage of the freewheeling spirit of new wave. Little Misunderstanding recalls E.L.O., Oingo Boingo, and Devo with an odd countryish guitar solo thrown in. Lonesome Little Town brings to mind the pastoral story songs of the Kinks. And La-La-La-La-La Loved You avoids any comparisons to other artists, but tells a kicky tale of lost love. The lyrics are the most coherent on the album (along with Nieve's brutal look at domesticity, Highrise Housewife), with intriguing details about a chaste night spent together watching silent films.

Since this album is not readily available (you can get it on CD as an expensive import; I found it on vinyl at a church rummage sale ), the real question is, should it be? Well, considering that My Aim Is True (and several other albums in Costello's early catalog) have seen multiple, superfluous, reissues, it does seem slightly unfair. It should at least be available for download. But unless you're a completest who has memorized every one of the 10 or so albums Costello made with the Attractions albums, Mad About the Wrong Boy is inessential listening, a curiosity more interesting for its existence than its content.

Grade: C
Fave Song: La-La-La-La-La Loved You

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