One thing too few stars in the music business do is try something different.
When you're up on top, the natural inclination seems to be to continue doing whatever it is that got you there. Sure, your music might progress and change gradually, but the basics usually remain the same. Don't rock the boat, in other words.
There are exceptions, thank goodness. Some performers like to take an artistic chance occasionally. And while these experiments don't always result in the artists' best work, they often are among the more interesting of their recordings.
Two performers going out on a limb with their newest releases are Elvis Costello, who's forsaken his usual energetic New Wave rock for an album of vintage country tunes, and Carly Simon, who's substituted a collection of pop standards for her normal rock ballads.
Costello's is the greater departure from the norm and is even more unusual than Miss Simon's because he's not yet as established. He may be a major star at home in the United Kingdom, but in the United States, he's still a rising (if influential) figure on the rock scene without a certifiable hit yet.
Releasing a country album at such a time in his career is a risky move, but one that might pay off big. Record-buyers who have been frightened off by the New Wave tag might be more inclined to sample Almost Blue (Columbia EC 37562).
For regular Costello fans, who might find the switch from London rock to Nashville country a bit abrupt, Costello opens the album with an upbeat sort of "New Wave country" version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)" to buffer the shock to their systems. The brief number hurtles along at Costello's usual rapid pace, with a hard rockabilly backing and heavy echo on the vocal.
Actually, that first selection is the least successful on the album. Costello does much better when he abandons the rock overtones and dives headlong into a hard-core honky-tonk country sound complete with twanging guitar, pedal steel and fiddle.
Costello recorded these numbers in Nashville last May under the supervision of producer Billy Sherrill, who's handled many Nashville stars. Costello's band, The Attractions (with drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas and keyboard player Steve Neive), is supplemented by John McFee of the Doobie Brothers on pedal steel and lead guitar.
The British rockers take to the country material with surprising ease. Neive, in particular, has a remarkable feel for the music and his rippling honky-tonk piano. dominates the instrumental backing even on numbers featuring McFee.
The whole album — none of it original material, — is generally pretty good, but three songs stand out as really excellent: "Sweet Dreams" is a slow tune featuring, for once, a Costello vocal that is completely understandable.
"Success," a mid-tempo crying-in-my-beer song, has Costello singing such lines as "Success has made a failure of our home" in a very suitable, half-cracked voice. And "A Good Year For The Roses," already a single in Britain, has a fine vocal backed by some nice pedal steel and a chorus called the Nashville Edition.
Also good are a couple of Gram Parsons tunes, "I'm Your Toy (Hot Burrito 1)" and "How Much I Lied," Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," a mid-tempo song called "Sittin' And Thinkin'" that has a heavier drumbeat and "Honey Hush," another upbeat rockabilly tune made more contemporary by a slightly sinister guitar backing.
George Jones' "Brown To Blue" and "Color of the Blues" (blue, as you might guess, is the dominant theme of the album) are rather pedestrian songs, as is Sherrill's ballad, "Too Far Gone."
In terms of subject matter, the songs on this album aren't that far afield from Costello's own songwriting. They mostly deal with hurt and loss, but in a more bittersweet, romantic way, lacking Costello's usual venom.
It could be that Costello's gamble will backfire and his rock fans won't take to the country material while country fans still will be put off by the British accent and New Wave image. If so, both sides will be missing a rather unique album that deserves to be heard.