Elvis Costello's King of America   Gets the Royal Treatment From Mo-Fi

E.C.’s tenth studio record, released in 1986, is among his finest musically and sonically, which explains why it wasn’t well received on the pop charts. It only went to #39.

It was his first mostly minus The Attractions who play but on one track, and that allowed Costello and co-producer T-Bone Burnett to gather a back-up studio group comprised of an eclectic mix of American originals, including members of that other Elvis’s ‘70’s era back up band, including guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ron Tutt.

Also on board: drumming greats Jim Keltner, Earl Palmer, Mickey Curry, producer Mitchell Froom on keyboards and on guitar, keyboards and bass the other “T-Bone” (Wolk). The great Ray Brown plays bass on a cover of J.B. Lenoir’s “Eisenhower Blues” and other musicians, well-known and not, also contribute.

By this time Costello had grown disenchanted with rock stardom and pop music generally. He was looking for another way to express himself and he found it here, more interested in art than commerce.

The opener, “Brilliant Mistake” slyly quotes “Simple Gifts” a memorable American religious tune also used in Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” as well as by CBS News’s “CBS Reports” starting way back in 1959.

The songs mostly revolve musically around rock-a-billy (“Loveable”, “Glitter Gulch”), classic Nashville “countrypolitan” (“Our Little Angel” and “Indoor Fireworks”) and lyrically around regrets including a cover of The Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Me Be Understood” that plods compared to the original. It’s the only less than fully realized track on the lengthy album that, were it more popular, Mobile Fidelity might have issued as a double 45.

Anyone who thinks E.C. had lost his bite here must have missed the line “If it moves you fuck it, if it doesn’t move then you stab it”

Recording was “live to tape” with few production tricks at Ocean Way and Sunset Sound with some later overdubs and extra tracking so of course this is a superb sounding recording, though some may have wished for a bit less in the reverb department, but it’s appropriate to the mood.

The recording of the acoustic guitars is accomplished particularly well. If the strumming on “Little Palaces” doesn’t excite your ears, something wrong at your end of the chain.

Interestingly, while the assistant engineers are credited, no one gets engineering or mixing credits, which is unusual. However, since a co-production credit goes to Larry Kalman Hirsch, I'm giving him the engineering credit unless someone says otherwise. By the way, Costello goes here by the names Elvis Costello, Declan MacManus and The Little Hands of Concrete (LHC).

I compared this Mobile Fidelity reissue mastered from the original tapes to an original American pressing (Columbia FC 40173) mastered at Precision, San Francisco, an original UK F-Beat (ZL 70946) also sourced from a Precision S.F. lacquer cut, a later UK Imp/Demon reissue (FIEND 78) and finally to an original F-Beat Japanese pressing (RPL-8330). Luckily I really like this record!

The original American sounds surprisingly flat and somewhat grainy leading me to suspect the master was transferred to Sony 1630 and mastered digitally. The original UK F-Beat is less edgy and grainy probably because of better plating and pressing, the Imp/Demon lifeless and also screams “DIGITS”, while the Japanese pressing is very detailed, very quiet and somewhat drab as well as being bass-shy compared to the Mo-Fi.

The Mobile Fidelity is better all around than any of the others. The guitars have greater transparency and transient clarity. Soundstage space is generous and deeper than on the other versions but most importantly, the grain found on most of the others is gone here. Bass is well-reproduced, particularly the kick drum, the snare is snappy and the acoustic guitars have great clarity without sounding unnaturally sharp.

Here's where I'd love to hear from someone involved in the production of the original Precision S.F. cut.

No doubt spread to two LPs the slight bit of congestion and less then fully realized bottom end heard on all of these records would be banished in favor of added space, clarity, and low end "whomp" but considering the record’s less than stellar commercial appeal, who can blame Mo-Fi? On the other hand, while the CD versions have no such issues, none of them compare to this for reasons only the digital gods can explain.

A reissue worth having, but while the original UK is stupidly stickered “play loud“, do yourself a favor and don’t. This one’s best off a moderate SPLs.

("Mystery Dance", the E.C. documentary currently playing on Showtime is definitely worth watching, though it's short on analysis, somewhat shallow and less than insightful).

Music Direct Buy It Now

K.Reid's picture

Good to see MoFi pushing out the reissues.

On another note, Mike we could sure use your wisdom to Ken Pohlmann's article on vinyl's future. He is asking whether vinyl is a good long term bet for investors given vinyl's infrastructure is aging and engineers with mastering on vinyl are nearing retirement age. First two commenters bashed vinyl due to lack of knowledge. I wrote a response but would be nice to hear your comments on that blog.

K.Reid's picture

That is Ken Pohlmann at Sound and Vision

Michael Fremer's picture
I forgot my log-in stuff for S&V. I'm getting it and then Ken and the commenters will get theirs.
thomoz's picture

I was working for an Atlanta records store chain when this lp came out. Possibly owing to me playing it in the store at least once a day and possibly owing to us being in the South the record sold quite respectably that year in Turtles #26 in Chamblee.

Paul Boudreau's picture

One of my favorite Declans. "Brilliant Mistake" is a song that regularly bangs its way into my head.

So MoFi only puts on 2x45rpm those albums that initially sold a certain amount? I've been wonder what the determining factor was.

kozy814's picture

I will buy this -- paired up with Blood & Chocolate, it's the last great one-two punch from EC and an "Abbey Road" of sorts from his classic era. I still spin that great bonus live CD with The Imposters that came in the special 2-CD Ryko edition from years ago.

kozy814's picture

But the Confederates.... The Live On Broadway 1986 CD

Hackmartian's picture

MoFi has been doing an incredible job with these reissues. As always (and is my constant gripe with the audiophile vinyl labels in general) I wish more attention was paid to the artwork, but the care with the mastering and pressing has made these things spectacular across the board. Get Happy!! is particularly essential — they did spread this one over 2LPs rather than cramming it all on one as originally released, and the result is an album that explodes with more energy and lets you hear the Attractions at their peak as a band. If you're a fan of Costello's at all, these are must-owns.

okiejerry's picture

Saw on Facebook where MoFi was mastering "Trust". It's about time. I pre-ordered it from Music Direct.

DigitalIsDead's picture

You'd think if they had time for this they could finally get Miles Davis Kind of Blue out... I think that it took Miles less time to record and release KOB then the elapsed time Mofi has taken to re release it.

thomoz's picture

. . an understatement if there ever was.
I bought this new pressing on your recommendation and played it on a blazingly good audio system -
Brinkmann Balance
Lyra Titan
Audio Research Preamp
Ayre amplification
Magico S3 loudspeakers
and the bottom end was pretty much non-existent, much to my surprise.

So when I got home I played the record on my gear that your readers have seen on this very site: Marantz/Clearaudio front end, McIntosh MX-110 and 2100 amps; I alternated between a pair of Magnepan MMGs and my Vienna Acoustics 'Bach's. Of course the MX-110 has non-bypassable EQ.

The record needed -1db at 10khz, +1.5db at 200hz, and I hooked up a subwoofer for the MMGs - but then this MFSL cut was stunning!

So I'll chime in with "recommended - but with conditions"
And of course this is all subjective.

Both the O.O.P. Ryko and Rhino cds of this title are still a good buy if you can find them - tons of bonus tracks and with the right DAC you will love the sound.