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Welcome back to the Elvis Costello Song Of The Week®, our ongoing attempt to drive you ever-deeper into the catalog of the musician who most embodies the Trunkworthy mission.
The week’s pick: “American Gangster Time” from Momofuku (2008)
Gary Stewart: Recorded in just two weeks, on the back of sessions for a Jenny Lewis album, Momofuku was initially only released on vinyl, too far before the current vinyl resurgence to get attention. That seems wrong for a record that ranks with the best of his rock albums. (You know, the kind so many people complain he never makes anymore, except he does—every six to eight years).
“American Gangster Time” seethes with the same kind of garage-band ferocity that fuels his more aggressive “classic” sides, but it sounds like it could keep company with anything by Jack White, The Foo Fighters or The Black Keys. It also would have fit alongside any of the best songs from Highway 61/Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan, if only Dylan had been even angrier or more scornful during that period.
And angry and scornful about what? From the tone of the opening verses: U.S. foreign policy and/or domestic chauvinism born of a national superiority complex. (Remember, he’s not throwing stones at glass houses since he spends more of his time in the U.S., and most of his other political songs take aim squarely at the mother country). The song begins with coarse imagery describing a graphic act of sexual exploitation, drawing analogies to national bullying that are made even more clear in a chorus dripping with disgust and calling for dissent and resistance. Combine that with the music—an organ-driven cacophony that never strays outside the boundaries of a sing-along pop song—and you’ve got one hell of a poison pill.
David Gorman: I’m sure we’ll be doing a proper Trunkworthy piece on this entire album soon enough. The whole damn thing ranks with Costello’s best stuff, it’s got a great origin story and cast of musicians, and, yeah, it was barely released in a way that anyone outside his deepest devotees would notice (good news? you can download the album for only 5 bucks on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play). It’s a shame, because this an invigorating album and “American Gangster Time” is killer garage-rock, exploding in your face with that same deranged organ that fuels “Light My Fire,” and, more to the point, Costello’s own early punk hits like “Pump It Up” and “Radio, Radio.”
Elvis sounds about 25 years old here, tearing through the song with unhinged energy and a palpable joy that usually gets lost in the studio. If you don’t feel that joy from the first chords, it’ll hit you when he gleefully shouts, “Here we go!” and “Bye, bye!” before the song’s final vamp. He must’ve been having one hell of a good time playing this, because you typically don’t get outbursts like that from someone spitting out such vicious rage in the lyrics.
If “American Gangster Time” crossed the desk of the right talk-radio host at the time, I guarantee you everyone would be aware of this album in the same way so many people who never paid attention to Steve Earle suddenly found a reason to defend or destroy him once Fox News heard “John Walker’s Blues.” Well, the violent, explicit verses of “American Gangster Time” barrel into a chorus that ain’t exactly a salute to Old Glory: “It’s a drag, saluting that starry rag, I’d rather go blind for speaking my mind or use it just like a gag.” Are you listening, Mr. O’Reilly?!? Give us some outrage! ’Cuz this song could deserves all the attention it can get.
Check out our playlist of all the Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week, right here for your listening pleasure: