Review of Rhino re-releases
Chicago Tribune, 2001-09-16
- Steve Darnall
Hoping to immortalize the other Elvis
Rhino Records resurrecting 18 Costello albums
By Steve Darnall
Special to the Tribune
Published September 16, 2001
He came out of nowhere at the height of the punk rock
revolution, a bundle of nerves, his glasses and clenched knees suggesting
a mixture of humor and fury. In the anything-goes spirit of the times,
he took his grandmother's last name and the King's first name and became
Elvis Costello. It was a moniker, he later acknowledged, that sounded
like a dare.
Which turned out to be appropriate: After his first three albums became
virtually synonymous with the punk rock/new wave movement, Elvis Costello
has gone on to build a career out of musical daring, fearlessly exploring
the worlds of pop, soul, country, jazz and classical, collaborating
with everyone from Paul McCartney to Burt Bacharach to the Chieftains.
"He is the Beatles for me," says Gary Stewart, a vice president
for Rhino Records. "I've followed him on every twist and turn and
liked all of it -- and had my musical tastes expanded in the process."
Those twists and turns are at the heart of Rhino's ambitious plan to
commemorate the first 20 years of Costello's career by reissuing 18
of his albums, thematically rather than chronologically. Hearing the
first three reissues together -- the 1977 debut "My Aim Is True,"
1989's "Spike" and 1996's "All This Useless Beauty"
-- one can see a man getting more and more comfortable with traversing
the musical globe.
"I didn't want people to treat these like the annuals [additions]
to an encyclopedia," Stewart says of his company's approach. "I
also think that there are stories to tell. There is a pattern you'll
see on the three discs. This [part of the reissue] is what I call his
`artist in residence' side, [featuring] more intricate musical textures,
more dense lyrical passages, more sophistication."
Buy one, get one free
The Rhino reissues feature something else as well: each CD has a bonus
disc, which contains demos, outtakes and extras from the time period
covered by each album.
Rykodisc Records performed a similar function when they reissued "Aim"
in 1994, but that company placed the whole package on a single disc,
which meant any extras were determined by the amount of free space at
"We thought very consciously about what we could do top [the Rykodisc
reissue]," Stewart says. "First of all, the sound quality
we were able to achieve massively surpasses any previous incarnation,"
for which Stewart credits Rhino producer Bill Inglot. "I knew we
would upgrade the sound, but I didn't think we would upgrade it that
"Secondly, [the extra disc] gives the bonus material its own day
in the sun. Songs like `Jump Up' or `Imagination Is A Powerful Deceiver'
were buried at the end of the Rykodisc version. That's no way to treat
a fine recording of a composition, to stuff it and mount it at the end
of a record. People are noticing the songs now."
Taken as a whole, the two-disc sets provide an fascinating look at the
evolution of Costello's songwriting. Costello's early compositions employ
wordplay and chord structures reminiscent of Randy Newman or Hoagy Carmichael,
at a time when admission to such fancies was tantamount to treason.
But if one can't exactly hear the Sex Pistols' sound on "My Aim
Is True," one can certainly see Costello embracing the straightforward
simplicity that was the tenor of the time. (Ironically, one of the standout
tracks on "Aim" was a ballad, the tough yet tender "Alison.")
A decade later, Costello -- free of his longtime backing band the Attractions
-- experimented with different sounds on the elaborately constructed
"Spike." Costello sang about senility (the subject of his
hit "Veronica"), interactive television and dancing on Margaret
Thatcher's grave, while Irish musicians rubbed elbows with New Orleans'
Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Paul McCartney's bass sat comfortably alongside
the 12-string sound of ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn.
"Spike" marked the happy beginning of Costello's association
with Warner Bros. Records; 1996's "All This Useless Beauty"
marked the acrimonious end.
"Beauty" and bonuses
To put the years in perspective: Between "Spike" and "Beauty,"
Costello had recorded with string quartets, gospel singers, jazz combos,
Burt Bacharach and his beloved Attractions, while singing on tribute
albums to Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus and "The X-Files." He'd
written songs for Johnny Cash, Aaron Neville and "Soul Man"
Sam Moore. (Some of these songs turn up on the "Beauty" bonus
disc, which Stewart acknowledges "would make a great record in
its own right.")
While all this was going on, Costello recalls in "Beauty's"
liner notes, "Record companies were being devoured like cold shrimp
on a lukewarm buffet." Creative forces and market forces were on
a collision course; the result, Stewart suggests, "was a record
that showed him at the peak of his powers, released into a market that
was apathetic for no reason other than timing."
Which offers another reason behind Stewart's decision to re-issue the
Costello catalog out of sequence. "I want people to have a chance
with great albums that were unjustly -- or in a fan's term, criminally
"I didn't want the first three records to come out and have them
coast on the archetypal [Attractions] sound," Stewart adds. "I
want to show Elvis as an artist with different facets."
The main Attractions
The "archetypal Attractions sound" will actually take center
stage in early 2002, when Rhino plans to reissue the 1978 classic "This
Year's Model," along with 1986's "Blood and Chocolate"
and 1994's "Brutal Youth."
"People are finally taking a look at Elvis Costello, the artist
with a wide music vocabulary and a 25-year career," says Stewart.
I think he is cursed by having too many good songs. We want to do what
we can to keep him from being penalized for that."
Copyright © 2001, Chicago
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