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Shellac & Vinyl: Allison Rapp on MAIT
That Fatal Mailing List #72
You’ve probably already encountered Allison Rapp and her rock writing across the web. She’s an assistant editor at Ultimate Classic Rock where she’s interviewed a wide range of luminaries including Roger McGuinn, Ann Wilson, John Oates and Judy Collins. She’s also quickly established a niche as their resident Elvis Costello scribe, covering the anniversary of EC’s first record as well as his recent NYC tour stop. Her writing has appeared in Insider, Brooklyn Magazine, Rock Cellar, City Limits, Buffalo Spree Magazine, and more.
For our debut installment of Shellac & Vinyl, Allison was good enough to dig deep on her favorite Elvis Costello album, the one that started it all. You can, and should, follow her on Twitter.
Where does your Elvis Costello fandom start? Do you remember the song or the album that pulled you in?
The answer to this question requires me to address the obvious, my first name. My parents did not name me after the song, but they're both fans of Elvis, and I grew up, literally, hearing that song around the house and in the car all the time. Of course, when you're a small child, you're a little embarrassed over something like that, and you definitely (hopefully) don't understand the kind of melancholy that Elvis is trying to convey in that song, but once I got old enough to wear party dresses and get my heart broken, “Alison” made a lot more sense to me. Now it's one of my favorite songs of all time. “Miracle Man” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” were also favorites of my parents, so those three songs in particular were a really big part of my childhood soundtrack.
I guess I should fully disclose: I'm 23, so I obviously don't have any first hand recollections of this album being released, but I think it speaks volumes that My Aim Is True can still hold a lot of meaning for someone a few decades down the line. Maybe it's not surprising at all — Elvis himself was only a month away from turning 23 when this album was released. There's a lot to relate to on My Aim Is True — angst, jealousy, cynicism, longing, “revenge and guilt” as Elvis famously put it – those feelings are universal and timeless.
What was your introduction to My Aim Is True? Was it love at first listen, or did it take time to grow on you?
I can't say I recall the first time I listened to the entire album all the way through, but it was definitely an immediate...Attraction. (Ba dum tss. You can cut this bad pun out, if you want.) [No way!-Ed.] I loved that it packed an absolutely whallopping punch and didn't pander for even a second — the whole thing is finished in a little over a half hour.
I never really got into a lot of those really popular late '70s punk bands on either side of the big pond — the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, etc — but people like Elvis, or the Clash, as another example, were different. They were still “angry” and passionate, so to speak, but cuttingly articulate and their bands, in my opinion, had a stronger rhythm section that felt like it gave the music more meat. And also, I've always been totally enthralled by Elvis' voice. A while back, I learned that he apparently has a heart murmur, which he says is perhaps part of the reason he has that touch of vibrato to his voice. You don't hear it quite as much on My Aim Is True as you do on later albums, but I just love his vocal performance on the record. Incredibly strong, ever so slightly snarky.
Make your case–why is My Aim Is True your favorite EC album?
For me, part of it boils down to what I mentioned earlier. Several of these songs I automatically associate with being a kid and hearing them when my parents put them on — I specifically remember being really intrigued by those early photos of Elvis, wearing those gigantic glasses standing with his toes turned inward and a guitar slung across the front of him. He was both exceptionally nerdy looking and impossibly cool. But also, I've always had an interest in albums in which the female characters are written about in more complex ways. The women Elvis talks about on My Aim Is True — whether it's “Alison” looking forlorn at the grocery store checkout or the woman “smiling with her legs” in “I'm Not Angry,” or the woman in “Watching the Detectives” who's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake – all have a certain sense of potency and influence that I was enamored with initially and still am today. Even when the women are being treated or described as “sex objects” of sorts, there's still something gripping about them. I've always appreciated the fact that the women in Elvis's music aren't just good looking or whatever — they're depressed and lonely and ruthless and a whole lot of other things in between.
How does My Aim Is True stand out for you among EC’s entire discography? What’s special about it?
They do say you only get one shot at a first impression. I find it impressive that it doesn't give away too much. Elvis had been trying to secure his first record deal for ages by the time he finally got one. Sometimes, that leads to artists throwing literally everything at the wall for their first album. What I admire about My Aim Is True is that it's an incredibly strong body of work that showcases a lot of what people would ultimately come to love about Elvis — his clever wordplay, his ability to be economical with his arrangements – but still leaves the door open just enough. Again, I wasn't around in 1977, but I would imagine it left a lot of listeners wondering "Who the hell is this guy? I wanna know what his deal is."
Clover was the backing band for EC on My Aim Is True; the Attractions wouldn’t enter the picture till the second album. Have you listened to many live renditions and noticed any differences in how the Attractions or Imposters approach those songs?
Truthfully, I haven't done much comparing of that nature, but I will say that I appreciate the fact that even when the Attractions came into the picture, and the Imposters as well, they honored the strength of the original studio recording — for a long time, I wasn't even aware that it wasn't the Attractions playing on My Aim Is True. The other thing I'll note is that it's kind of incredible that those guys in Clover, an American group who had literally never worked with Elvis before, somehow managed to sound that cohesive with him off the bat.
What’s your favorite song on My Aim Is True, and why?
Is it a cop out to say “Alison”? To me it almost reads like a little internal stage play: “Sometimes I wish that I could stop [beat] you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say.” (I also love the guitar intro from John McFee, almost bell-like.) And again, it goes back to the way Elvis writes about women. It clearly doesn't make much of a difference if Alison is conventionally beautiful or sexually desireable or what have you. Those are usually easier songs to write, but to paint a wonderfully heartbreaking portrait of someone is a lot more impactful. It's a love song with absolutely every aspect of love in it, even the less joyful ones — sadness, jealousy, redemption, beauty, trust.
How do you feel about the sequencing, the production, the arrangements–anything you’d change about the album?
Overall, I like the sequencing of the album, and I love the close-knit sound it has. And I'll add that I'm not sure Nick Lowe has ever totally gotten enough credit for his work with Elvis and other artists too, including himself. Clearly something indescribable clicked between him and Elvis, but even beyond that, Nick was able to effectively facilitate this “power pop” genre of music that was totally different from everything else going on at the time. It was really unique stuff.
Some would say My Aim Is True may be one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Agree/disagree?
Definitely. I try not to be the kind of person who judges anyone on their first album alone – the whole point of being a musician is to grow and evolve and change and learn — but My Aim Is True is a wildly impressive piece of work for someone of that age especially.
What do you think it is about an album like My Aim Is True that continues to draw you in, forty-plus years after release?
I think one of the great things about My Aim Is True is that even when Elvis sings a lot of those songs today, they still feel really authentic to him as a musician and person. You know how sometimes artists will keep playing songs from the early days of their careers and it just feels like they're playing the character of who they used to be? I don't really get that sense with Elvis and this album in particular. His aim still is very much true.