Review of For The Stars
Wall Of Sound, 2001-04-10
- Jeff Schwager

 

Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter
For the Stars

Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Genre: Pop
File Under: Elvis' fair lady
Rating: 86

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Since his early days as the crown prince of new wave's angry young men, Elvis Costello has traded in his punk fury for pop wanderlust. He more or less dismissed the Attractions in 1986 and has spent the last decade and a half experimenting with a wide variety of musical forms, collaborating with an eclectic assortment of musicians including T-Bone Burnett, Paul McCartney, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, the Brodsky Quartet, Ute Lemper, Burt Bacharach, and now mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.

This latest release, For the Stars, is billed as Anne Sofie von Otter Meets Elvis Costello, and it is more properly considered a von Otter album, though one that says at least as much about its producer, Costello, as it does about the artist who sings the songs. Costello wrote or co-wrote eight of the album's 18 songs, and his influence is evident in most of the other selections, including two lesser-known numbers from The Beach Boys' touchstone Pet Sounds, a pair of McCartney tunes, and songs by longtime Costello favorites Tom Waits and Ron Sexsmith. It's an elegant and meticulously produced collection, a touch restrained for ears more accustomed to pop than classical music. But ultimately, given the benefit of repeated listenings, it's a record that any fan of good music should be able to embrace.

Von Otter has a large, lovely voice that — initially, at least — works best on songs that lead with their emotions. The Beach Boys' "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" and "You Still Believe in Me," and the Costello-Bacharach collaboration "This House Is Empty Now" are perfect examples of this sort of emotive pop, and von Otter's readings are rich with feeling and play beautifully off Costello's understated arrangements. The more one listens, however, to subtler songs like Costello's "Baby Plays Around" and "I Want to Vanish," or Waits' "Take It With Me," the more one appreciates the simple clarity of von Otter's delivery.

Less successful is the medley of Waits' "Broken Bicycles" and Paul McCartney's "Junk," the latter sung as a counter-melody by Costello, whose over-extended range and shaky vibrato provide an awkward complement to von Otter's pristine tones. (Costello fares better on his other vocal appearances, especially the moving title cut.) And on "For No One," the McCartney-penned Beatles classic, von Otter's precise delivery can't match the simple, naturalistic grace of the original. But these are small quibbles that barely interfere with the enchantment of yet another surprising and delightful detour in Costello's career path. Indeed, von Otter's voice is a pitch-perfect instrument to reveal still more of her partner's mastery of pop form. — Jeff Schwager

Jeff Schwager used to be the editor in chief of Mr. Showbiz and Wall of Sound. He is now director of entertainment programming for a Seattle-based interactive TV startup.

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