There isn't much surprise left in the cross-over business (remember when Montserrat Caballe teamed up with Freddy Mercury?), but this disc still presents an unlikely pairing. Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter has one of the most exquisite voices of our time; rocker Elvis Costello doesn't. She is usually immersed in German lieder and opera; he isn't. Somehow, a mutual admiration developed between the two over the past few years, and the idea of a collaboration took root.
The result is a pleasant, laid-back — mostly very laid-back — collection of pop/rock songs, from the Beach Boys, Beatles and ABBA to Tom Waits and, of course, Costello. Von Otter holds back vocally, the way Kiri Te Kanawa did when she first started the cross-over bit; there's hardly a trace of classical training — or a high note — to be heard. And as happened with Te Kanawa, there's also hardly a spontaneous phrase. Everything is very pretty, very exact and, too often, very bland.
A medley of "Broken Bicycles" and "Junk," for example, seems sanitized when sung with such superb articulation and beauty of tone; it's hard for von Otter to make lines like "Broken-hearted jubilee / Parachutes, army boots" sound thoroughly natural. And the contrast of vocalism when Costello occasionally chimes in, especially on the innocuous title track, can be unsettling. (More unsettling are some of the abrupt fade-outs on several tracks.)
Here and there, the mezzo does fit the contour of a melody and the imagery of a lyric snugly. And her sincerity is never in doubt; neither is Costello's. For fans of either, the disc provides a conversation piece, at the very least.