What's Up With Elvis Costello's Vocal Ticks on "Walk Us Uptown"?

Categories: A Rant
elvis.jpg

A few years ago, we went to see Bob Dylan play, and it was one of the most crushingly disappointing performances we've ever seen. Not because he'd rearranged songs, and not because he didn't play some classics -- the overriding problem of the entire thing was simple: he rolled through the set with so little enthusiasm or even interest that it was like paying to watch an old man fall asleep into a bowl of soup. It wasn't about his age. It was about him simply not giving a shit anymore.

That's what happens sometimes -- artists reach a certain level, get called a legend one too many times, and they start taking their audience for granted. They know people are going to continue to show up to see them regardless of what they do, or what they put out, and they know that once the "legend" title has been granted, it never gets overturned. Which might explain Elvis Costello's half-arsed performance on new track, "Walk Us Uptown" -- a collaboration with the Roots.



This, ladies and gents, is not the recording of someone who particularly gives a shit anymore. The lovely gents of the Roots were nice enough to put together a kick-ass track for Costello to croon over, and he phones in a performance that, at best, gives us some insight as to what he sounds like singing in the shower.

We understand throwing down vocals in a laid-back manner. We understand the random nature of jamming. But seriously, Elvis? That point 36 seconds in, when your voice cracks, breaks and hits a bum-note? You're not gonna re-do that? Really? Because it would take you about 30 seconds to fix. You also could've taken an additional 30 seconds to fix the point where it happens again, at the 1:26 minute mark.

Now, we know this sounds like nit-picking. And really, it is. But that's what you're supposed to do when you record a song -- you nit-pick until you get everything right. We're pretty sure that Elvis Costello wouldn't have left such obvious vocal flaws on his earliest recordings, when he was still making a name for himself, so why is it okay to do now? Don't the Roots deserve better? Or the audience, for that matter? Having bum notes caused by an obvious vocal crack left in a song doesn't add character to the track, it ruins it -- especially when Costello sounds so exhausted for the entirety of this thing.

Costello and the Roots have a full album of collaborations out on Sept. 17, titled Wise Up Ghost. We're still excited to hear it -- but we can only hope Costello isn't this sloppy on every track, because the potential for greatness with this project is enormous.

-- @Raemondjjjj

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7 comments
docinwestchester
docinwestchester

"Half-arsed performance"? Due to a vocal "tick"? You are totally lost.

connorratliff
connorratliff

Also, for what it's worth, it's "vocal tics" not "vocal ticks."

Seriously, Rae Alexandra? The headline of the article, and you use the wrong word? You're not gonna re-do that? Really? Because it would take you about 30 seconds to fix.

Doesn't SFWeekly deserve better? Or the readers, for that matter? 

RRonnie
RRonnie

I have to say that I think your interpretation of the song is completely wrong. You write as if The Roots/Elvis Costello team up was forced by some record label, when in fact it was a collaboration between friends who greatly respect each other. I love it when artists choose to keep cuts that are raw and full of emotion. I find it hard to believe that you really think that The Roots and Elvis Costello would produce and release a highly anticipated song that they were not completely happy with. Your logic suggests that every recording that contains any technical imperfections--be it vocal or instrumental--is a sign of an artist not caring. How silly is that?

RRonnie
RRonnie

I have to say that I think your interpretation of the song is completely wrong. You write as if The Roots/Elvis Costello team up was forced by a record lable and Elvis did not care about it, when in fact it was a collaboration between friends who greatly respect each other. I love it when artists choose to keep cuts that are raw and full of emotion. I find it hard to believe that you really think that The Roots and Elvis Costello would produce and release a highly anticipated song that they were not 100 percent happy with. Your logic suggests that every recording that has technique

connorratliff
connorratliff

Costello has always left small imperfections on his records rather than fix them with overdubs. For heaven's sake, there is a FLUBBED LYRIC on the lead single from 1982's "Imperial Bedroom", one of the most polished and well-crafted albums of his whole career.  (Listen to the word "bird" in the phrase "with a bird in his hand" on the song "You Little Fool.")  

And that was on an album where he meticulously saved the vocals until the very end of the recording process and spent a lot of time on them.  I think he just has a certain affection for performances that aren't 100% polished and auto-tuned into oblivion.  Personally, I think the way his voice breaks on "we won't make a sound" is one of the best and most effective moments of this new single...

I'd argue that the world-weary lyrics of "Walk Us Uptown" are what dictated the tone and tenor of his vocal performance, and I'll bet that the remainder of the forthcoming album will probably bear that out.  

If he sounds the same on every track I'm more than willing to admit that I'm wrong when I hear the rest of the record.  But this article seems like some pretty lazy speculation.  Johnny Cash's voice cracked quite a few times on his records with Rick Rubin and I don't think anyone suggested that he no longer "gave a shit."

By the way, the 1986 version of this article would be: "Oh my god, I just heard the way Elvis Costello sings the song "I Want You" and he sounds CRAZY!  I think he might have gone insane."

Neil
Neil

I think it's really pushing it to say Elvis has phoned in this performance! He always leaves "throat frogs" in, because he prefers to go with the live, untinkered-with take (there's an astounding bum note in his 1989 track 'Deep Dark Truthful Mirror'. I seriously don't think it's anything to do with him not giving a shit!

As for sounding tired - I'm not sure I agree, but if you think he does, it's probably entirely down to an artistic choice - again nothing to do with 'not giving a shit'. One of his most acclaimed early albums, 'Imperial Bedroom', contains a totally knackered-sounding vocal, as though the weight of the world is on his shoulders and he hasn't slept for a month. That track is the gold-plated classic, 'Man Out of Time'.

His last album, 2010's National Ransom, was as energetic as ever, full of invention. Can you really say that he is phoning in performances on the amazing 'Church Underground' and 'A Voice in the Dark' (though he does sound suitably - and deliberately - exhausted on the heartbreaking 'All These Strangers')

Is this a 'phoned-in' performance on radio, for that album? (The vocal intro is restrained and tender, but wait until the song proper kicks in) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Szu-y3n9ubg

(Okay, you're probably stirring it up a bit to garner some comments - well, it's worked!)


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