MY DARLING CLEMENTINE – Country Darkness (Fretsore Records)

Country DarknessMy Darling Clementine’s Country Darkness collects together three EPs in which band members Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish pay a detailed and loving tribute to the music of Elvis Costello – that guy formally known as Declan MacManus.

It’s just an idea, but the heavenly voices of Michael Weston and wife Lou could do the impossible and make an EC lyric from ‘Hand In Hand’ that proclaims, “If I’m goin’ down you’re gonna’ come down with me” sound like the finest of all vows ever spoken as a sincere and eternal expression of new found marital bliss.

That said, the first song, ‘Either Side Of The Same Town’ (from Delivery Man – which also provided the title!), serves as the template for this collection. Elvis’ original is mustarded amid a record filled with rough and tumbled tunes. In contrast, Michael and Lou’s voices trade lead lines and then, with harmony, deeply accent the melody, while Costello keyboard mainstay, Steve Nieve’s piano enriches the drama. Not only that, but the electric guitar pulses like a Robbie Robertson solo, circa ‘It Makes No Difference’ from Northern Lights – Southern Cross.

And the other Delivery Man cover, ‘Heart Shaped Bruise’, manages to travel in the very same orbit as the original—which found our Elvis duetting with Emmylou Harris. That’s tough competition.

The two songs from my favorite EC album, King Of America, follow in those dramatic footsteps. ‘I’ll Wear It Proudly’ is really enhanced by the dual conversational voice. (And thank you, again, Steve Nieve for the piano tears that sing with sadness.) The other song, ‘Indoor Fireworks’, moves from the original subtle honesty to yet another impassioned confession of torn love. And, for anyone who (heaven forbid!) is a Costello novice, the song’s lyric “Everybody loves a happy ending/But we don’t even try” is the condensed SparkNotes summation of a lifelong melodic rant against a “radio” that “is in the hands of such a lot of fools/ Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel”.

You know, (the great) Richard Thompson sang in ‘The Poor Ditching Boy’, “The stormy wind cut through to my skin/But she cut through to my blood”; and these songs touch that “blood”, but somehow manage (with weird human irony) to make that bleeding a bit more beautiful. In a similar way, as my friend, Kilda Defnut, often says of Costello’s music, “His melodies are just warm enough to allow deeply cold words to really be enjoyed”.

Now, it’s just another thought, but in keeping with Newton’s Laws of Motion where for “every action there’s an equal opposite reaction”, just perhaps, as My Darling Clementine’s Michael and Lou up the melody ante of these songs with their vocal prowess, they also deepen any “cut to the blood” and simply magnify the frigid beauty of these lyrics, and in (with even more very human irony) inject inexplicable rock ‘n’ roll joy into the music.

By the way, All This Useless Beauty’s ‘Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone’, with those dual voices and backing horns, pledges eternal allegiance (with internal fizz to boot) with austere standing stone mystery.

Now, the word tribute conjures the concept of bluegrass musicians Pickin’ On Pink Floyd, those London Symphony Orchestra playing the music of Genesis and Jethro Tull, or even the big collection of many artists helping a cause like (the pretty nice) Love For Levon Helm – which was a benefit “to save his barn”. But this is a very different animal: It works as a cohesive and continuous album. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Country Darkness is the pop music equivalent of say, pianist Ivo Pogorelich performing Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition.

That said (again), there are a lot shifting gears here. Of course, that’s certainly in keeping with Costello’s muse. And the song selection excludes the obvious stuff like ‘(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes’, ‘Allison’, ‘Pump It Up,’ ‘Oliver’s Army’, and Clive Langer co-written ‘Shipbuilding’. Instead, there are so many unsung classic tunes unearthed. National Ransom’s ‘I Lost You’ gets inflated into a big country keyboard pop tune that, once again, injects that cryptic joy into these grooves. The Secret, Profane & Sugarcane’s ‘The Crooked Line’ is organ enhanced and exudes happy rock ‘n ’roll reverence that explodes with pop delight – in a wondrous parallel orbit with the added vibe of an original Cajon stomp. Then, ‘I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came’ takes a melodic bus to the Grand Ole Opry, as does Taking Liberties’ ‘There’s A Stranger In The House’, which conjures the spirit of Almost Blue – the album that shook the confidence of new wave rockers who loved ‘Oliver’s Army’ anywhere. And then, against several odds, ‘That Day Is Done’ (co-written with Paul McCartney!) gets a big horn soulful treatment, and yeah, gets into the wonderful Delany and Bonnie territory.

Ah – there’s more: Trust’s ‘Different Finger’ is simply a toe-tapping and accordion enhanced romp through infidelity where knowledge of a “second name” isn’t a necessity. And Michael’s vocal conjures the tone of that other guy named Elvis! Then, Brutal Youth’s ‘To Soon To Know’ sums up the obvious: It’s a song with an uncertain lyric, yet it is propelled by a melody filled with certain beauty.

So, thankfully, nobody here is “pickin’” on Elvis Costello; although, what with his initial horned-rimmed specs and that snotty attitude, he seemed to be kind of asking for it! But, thankfully (again!), Country Darkness is an album of love graced with immense talent. And, unlike the “man” in a before-mentioned song, these are grooves that can “stand alone” because they spin classic rock songs with a voiced sincerity – a sincerity whose aim will always be true.

Bill Golembeski

Note: The album also includes an MDC penned song, ‘Powerless’, which was not included in my reviewer’s download. And for the umpteenth time, I can only quote the great Peter Green (of early Fleetwood Mac fame!) when he sang, “Oh well”.

Artists’ website:

‘The Crooked Line’ – official video: