My Darling Clementine with Steve Nieve - Country Darkness Vol 3
With Elvis Costello about to release his 31st album next month with "Hey Clockface" what better time for My Darling Clementine to release the third and final installment of their "Country Darkness" series, where with the aid of long time Costello sidekick, ( King of the Keyboard Jungle, Imposter and Attraction and one time Peril of Plastic) ( Steve Nieve, they have not so much covered the songs of EC as given them new leases of life by turning them into duets which in many cases has brought the stories to life with a stunning new clarity.
The song choices have always been excellent, the bigger hits eschewed in favour of songs that would work best in these new scenarios. Occasionally there has had to be a little lyrical tweak to make the narrative work but at all times they have stuck to the spirit of the originals.
"I'll Wear It Proudly" comes from King Of America, an album which Steve played little part in first time round so it is fascinating hearing him playing this particular tune, keeping the familiar organ line but replacing it with a piano. That closing phase incidentally. originally played by Mitchell Froom was later to get reworked into the Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" an album he later produced. In terms of other covers there has only been one, a surprisingly straight live version performed by Radiohead, perhaps the lyrics are a little to personal and direct while at times also a little confusing for it to become any sort of standard, the third verse in particular is a little cryptic and open to interpretation and that talk of "nail my feet up where my head should be" is an uncomfortable image for many.
The transformation into a duet gives it the air of a telephone conversation or a hotel rendezvous, there is definitely a charged atmosphere and a frisson in the air for the opening verse.
"I hate these flaming curtains they're not the color of your hair
I hate these strip lights they're not so undoing as your stare
I hate the buttons on your shirt when all I want to do is tear
I hate this bloody big bed of mine when you're not here"
The second verse introduces elements of doubt into this relationship, with any Costello song there is no way of knowing quite how much time has passed between verses but when Michael sings
"Well you seem to be shivering dear and the room is awfully warm" there is hint that all is not well.
Things seem to have deteriorated more by verse 3 where Lou's opening line
"Were you arms and legs wrapped round more than my memory tonight?" refers to a relationship in the past tense.
The key lines from the chorus , which Michael and Lou sing with some pride as the song requires, have always seemed to be
"If they had a King of Fools then I could wear that crown
And you can all die laughing because I'll wear it proudly"
My Darling Clementine's version musically is quite basic, there are some relatively simple guitar and percussion with the telling parts being Steve's bautiful keyboard lines and the vocal performances that work to create the whole ambience.
"The Crooked Line" from "The Secret, Profane & The Sugarcane" was a heavy fiddle based song with an accordion and mandolin for good measure along with vocals from co writer T Bone Burnett and Emmylou Harris' It is a bit of good time knees up and one of Elvis's less wordier songs so not a lot of source material to reinterpret, more a case of maintaining that atmosphere and that My Darling Clementine certainly do. Steve Nieve is given free reign to work his magic, with one of the strangest upbeat keyboard sounds you'll ever hear. The sound is filled out with percussion designed to make you smile along with some clapping and a quirky guitar solo.
"If you were my life's companion As it seems you may turn out to be I'm contemplating How I hope I'll find you waiting At the very end of this crooked line"
My Darling Clementine do a great job of playing it straight as they sing along but surely must have broken down into fits of laughter on completion as it is sheer party time music if slightly whacky!.
From the unbridled joy of "The Crooked Line" we move to the emotional jolt that is "Indoor Fireworks" a second cut from "King Of America" with just Lou singing the first verse and chorus along to Steve's piano playing throwing us headlong into a scene of relationship break up.
"We play these parlour games
We play at make-believe
When we get to the part where I say that I'm going to leave
Everybody loves a happy ending but we don't even try"
It has always struck me as a brutally honest song from the first time I heard it. The title an obvious play on words and the chance for firework imagery to be utilised throughout. It is a tune that's been covered a few times Nick Lowe's oddly unsympathetic version very much a victim of the time it was recorded in, Kev Russells strangely overwrought version on a Costello covers album adds little, while Misen offered a synth laden version. even Lou Dalgleish herself has already had a go at it on her "Calmer" album however by changing it to a duet My Darling Clementine have had a fundamental effect on how things are viewed.
That opening beautifully sung and played comes from the viewpoint of someone who clearly acknowledges that this relationship is over whereas when Michael takes over for verse two, it's very much a reminiscence and that same sense of inevitability does not seem present, it clearly has always been a fractious relationship
"though the sparks would fly
I thought our love was fireproof
Sometimes we'd fight in public, darling
With very little cause
But different kinds of sparks would fly
When we got on our own behind closed doors"
The third verse plays out this strange dynamic with Lou taking the lions share of the lines reinforcing that things are at an end and while Michael only contributes one line "Don't think for a moment, dear, that we'll ever be through" it now has a hint of menace about it as well as failing to accept that this separation is permanent. It all adds up to a lot of drama unfolding, perfectly supplemented by Steve Nieve's simple, unfussy, yet elegant playing.
The ace in the pack is probably the most difficult one of the originals to better, "Why Can't A Man Stand Alone" from "All This Useless Beauty" was one of the stand out songs from the tour that accompanied the album. Each night the closing section with Steve pounding the keys and Elvis hitting exceptional notes would draw extended applause long after the song had completed.Originally intended for Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, My Darling Clementines version arguably has a more soulful feel than the original and also is subject to a Burt Bacharach style makeover which works an absolute treat
The three Volumes go to make up one full albums worth of material and as a special bonus we get a My Darling Clementine original in the shape of "Powerless". At first glance it seemed a little cheeky adding one of your own songs to mix in such exalted company, however listening to it soon sends such worries away. If anything it is a perfect embodiment of all the songs and styles that have preceded it complete with a gorgeous brass section.
It is quite simply a classic Country song, it feels almost as if it could have come from any era, and like many of EC's songs we are thrust into the action immediately as Lou quite splendidly opens
"I'm powerless, I cannot lie I must confess the truth, I'm leaving you and I won't be returning"
Michael takes the lead in equally fine fettle for the second verse and there follows an overheard telephone conversation, with who it is not exactly clear, there are a number of possibly suspects but the only snatch of conversation overheard are the words "I always knew that this wouldn't last". When Michael visits the chorus the words have changed
"I'm powerless you left behind such a mess .... no-one can fill the shoes that you walked away in"
The third verse sees a tour de force from Lou and the writing is immaculate as the reason for the decision to break up is explained. With the closing sections becoming a soulful masterpiece this track well and truly earns its place on the album.
Undoubtedly one of the great collaborations of 2020, that should satisfy fans of EC or My Darling Clementine a combination of the due reverence, being fans of the originals, mixed with the confidence and self belief that there was yet more to be extracted from these little gems. All given the perfect seal of approval by having the presence of Steve Nieve as a bridge between the two.