I have a photograph, somewhere, of my first rock critic hero, Lester Bangs, slouched in his rather disgusting New York City apartment, surrounded by immense piles of records, presumably ones sent to him gratis by record labels, to be considered for review.
Many would probably find this photo unappealing, redolent as it is of the scattershot chaos that permeated Bangs' life and his writing. Me? I love that picture. It somehow symbolizes the "I refuse to grow up" glory of what I do for a living.
By the time I got around to following in Bangs' footsteps, those beautiful record albums had been zapped by the consumerist shrink ray. CDs were immediately convenient, but they sounded like garbage, and they were much more difficult to fetishize over than their big, bold, gatefolded forebears. It has been difficult to feel like a Bangs, a Richard Robinson, a Robert Christgau, while holding these tiny little digitally encoded Frisbees a few inches from my face to compensate for increasingly poor eyesight. The things don't look as cool scattered all over one's living space, either. Just ask my wife.
I have much to thank Elvis Costello for. We named our only son after the guy — Declan, not Elvis, mind you. He's given us quite a catalog of beautiful songs, some raging and self-righteous, some frightened and lost, some shimmering with compositional and lyrical beauty. Costello concerts are, more often than not, breathtaking.
I'm most grateful to Costello, however, for affording me my first opportunity to review a new release on thick, fat vinyl.
I'm too old to live like Lester Bangs at this point — cough syrup and Budweiser, the late critic's cocktail of choice, holds no appeal as an after-work wind-me-down — but this week, I imagined what he must have felt like when he first sat down with a 33 RPM copy of, say, Lou Reed's Transformer, preparing to scribble some inspired thoughts.
Costello has released Momofuku — the title, certainly obscure, is not actually some thinly veiled obscenity, but rather, a tribute to the inventor of the Cup O' Soup, apparently — as a vinyl-only double album.
As of Thursday morning, purchasers of that album could proceed to www.momofukudownload.com and punch in their personal code for a digital copy of the record. As far as blows against the empire go, this one may not amount to much. Costello, after all, is hardly Beyonce when it comes to album sales or commercial clout. But man, what a cool gesture it is. Oh, and guess what? As good as the digital download does sound — it's got warm low end, none of that brittle high end and over-compression that make so many downloads border on the unlistenable — the vinyl sounds much better.
If you've grown up in a world where people are actually downloading and listening to music on their cell phones, (ugh!) this vinyl business might seem wholly pointless. Why go through the trouble? Record albums are big and unweildy, and you can't skip straight to the one song you like with the press of a thumb.
If you care about sound quality, however, this is a mini-coup. You really haven't heard anything recorded prior to 1990 properly until you've dropped the needle on the vinyl, cranked the volume and let it all wash over you. Momofuku underscores the point that modern-day recordings can sound just as good as their old-school counterparts.
None of this would mean much, of course, if Momofuku was a less-than-great Elvis Costello album. Happily, it's a simply outstanding effort from a brilliant artist who has been a bit inconsistent in the album department for a good while. All Costello long-players since 1991's Mighty Like a Rose have their moments of transcendent brilliance. But Momofuku is packed with them.
The Imposters — Costello mates Pete Thomas, Steve Nieve and Davey Faragher — perform with the same elastic wallop evident on the best Attractions albums of yore. Guests Jenny Lewis, Jonathan Rice, Tennessee Thomas, "Farmer" Dave Scher, David Hidalgo and Jonathan Wilson add significant ambience and supple flesh to Costello's songs. The album's production — courtesy of Costello and Jason Lader — is dark-hued, thick and enveloping. The songs are instantly memorable. Momofuku feels like a classic, immediately.
Will Costello's vinyl-only salute have any impact on the industry as a whole? No. It might be meant as a shot across the bow, but ultimately, it's just a gift for those of us who love the way music used to sound before everything went digital. Thanks, Elvis.•
Elvis Costello & the Imposters open for the Police inside HSBC Arena at 7:30 p. m. Saturday.