Taking on the Elvis Costello songbook is a risky proposition, yet My Darling Clementine have an ace up their sleeve on Country Darkness, the personal keyboard player of Mr. McManus, one Steve Nieve. Together, Michael Weston King (whose voice has more than a little of E.C.’s tone), Lou Dalgleish and Nieve find the keys to this music, without merely recreating the old masters. While it would be easy to say that Nieve stands out on this collection, the reality is that he plays his role while leaving King and Dalgleish to be the stars of the show.
Originally released as a series of three EPs, Country Darkness is now being released as a re-sequenced album with the addition of one extra track, ‘Powerless’, a number written by My Darling Clementine and a fitting addition to the 12 Costello tracks on display. Eschewing the obvious choices, the album goes for songs that could be redefined by the duo format. What the approach makes clear is the abilities of Costello to write songs that are malleable enough to be reframed and reshaped in a variety of ways.
Trading verses on ‘Stranger In The House’, Dalgleish and King wring the emotion out of the song as Nieve and the band play a proto-bossa nova complete with Farfisa organ licks and some beautiful piano work. Their version removes the song from the vein of George Jones, placing it in a context that brings even more drama to the song.
Opening with just Nieve’s ever present piano, ‘Still Too Soon To Know’ (from Brutal Youth) is filled with heartbreak. When King sings the opening line, “Do you love him?/ Or is it still too soon to know,” the hurt is palpable. While he prays there’s still a chance for the relationship, he’s already thinking that he knows the answer. Based on next song, ‘Powerless’, the only song not written by Costello, the answer is obvious. Amidst a brace of horns, Dalgleish and King offer solo thoughts on the first two lines before duetting on the third, “Though I hang my head in shame/ If you go nothing remains/ But tell me who’s the one to blame?” It’s a moment of incredible truth and sadness.
What makes this collection so successful is that My Darling Clementine don’t over think things. There’s never a sense that they are trying to be willfully different. The material plays to their strengths as singers, which makes sense considering that Costello is one of the best writers of his generation. Bringing Nieve on board as their musical compatriot only adds to the success. He understands that material and gets the opportunity to revisit it making different choices.
Choosing a variety of material from throughout Costello’s career, from his time with the Attractions, the Imposters, solo efforts as well as duets, My Darling Clementine and Steve Nieve have shed new light on the work of Elvis Costello by finding meaning in the Country Darkness.