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This week’s pick: “Poisoned Rose,” released on King of America (1986)
Gary Stewart: “Poisoned Rose” is the New Shimmer of Elvis Costello songs: It’s a torch song and a country ballad. The last artist before Costello to meld country and torch so masterfully was Ray Charles. Elvis has even said he wrote the song with Ray in mind, and one wonders what this would have sounded like had they made an album together. One also wonders and marvels at what George Jones or Pasty Cline could have made of this song.
So how is it that one of the best practitioners of the pre-rock-era Great American songbook happens to be someone who’s Irish-born and came of age in the rock era? Maybe it has something to do with being raised by a mother who worked in record stores and jazz clubs and a father who was a band leader—all jobs that required genre dexterity. We’ re sure to get more in a memoir set for publication in October, but let’s skip the why and just enjoy the what.
“Poisoned Rose” is another devastating song about a relationship that won’t work no matter how much the singer wants it to. You’re transformed to the bar at closing time, crying in your beer and confessing to anyone who will listen. It’s just dripping with beauty and pain.
In the tradition of “Almost Blue,” “The Only Flame in Town,” much of his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and more than a few you’ve seen and will see on this feature, there’s this one. Now if Rod Stewart, Annie Lennox, Michael Bublé, or even Adele would give it a try the next time they walk into the studio, we’d be doing our job.
David Gorman: “Poisoned Rose” is what a broken heart has sounded like for more than 50 years. It’s that 90-proof blend of jazz, blues, and country that everyone from Charles Brown to Frank Sinatra to Willie Nelson made careers out of. The music is perfectly, painfully restrained, and the lyrics are spiked with couplets that read like Hallmark cards from hell: “It’s just you and me now, ’cause I threw away the gin.” Each verse of “Poisoned Rose” is more defeated than the last, creating a sinking feeling that never gives you the merciful relief of drowning. We’ve all been somebody’s fool, and this is the song we were singing at the time. But there’s a good chance none of us sang it the way Elvis does here, somehow moving through every stage of grief in a single vocal.
But Elvis is only part of what makes “Poisoned Rose” a flawless torch song. At least half the credit has to go to the band, anchored by Earl Palmer on drums and Ray Brown on bass. If your entire music collection consisted only of albums these two have graced, you’re still only a few records away from a perfect library. Palmer’s resumé covers nearly every important American rock and pop artist from the ’50s and ’60s (he was a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew as well as an in-demand session player on his own), and Brown pretty much defined how the bass would be played in modern jazz as a key architect of bebop and as the bassist of the mighty Oscar Peterson Trio. Brown learned the art of the torch song backing Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and that’s what you hear on “Poisoned Rose,” where he and Palmer mesh perfectly with relative young guns Tom Canning and Mitchell Froom, creating the kind of elegant blues that never went out of style but hasn’t been so warmly rendered in decades.
One of my favorite albums—and I don’t mean that in a general way, but in the way that signifies it’s one of the few material things I’d rescue from my burning home if I didn’t think I could score another clean copy of the original mono LP—is Sam Cooke’s Night Beat. “Poisoned Rose” is a song that would’ve ended Side 1 perfectly, following “Get Yourself Another Fool” (which, coincidentally, Elvis also covered). Only the mention of a woman “half undressed,” which would have been salacious for the time, shatters the illusion of “Poisoned Rose” being of the same vintage as Sam’s 1963 masterpiece. Every other element of the song—it’s melody, mood, tempo, arrangement, and smokey atmosphere—are exactly what Cooke was aiming for. And while I would have loved to hear Sam wrap his voice around this one, I think Elvis brought it home just fine.
Our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist grows again. Please enjoy: