Elvis Costello's 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach was neither the instant classic it's been proclaimed by songcraft aficionados nor the artistic coffin nail it's been declared by those who still resent Costello's late-80s break with his new-wave band, the Attractions.
The worst thing I can say about Painted From Memory (Universal) is that it's stuffy, though compared to The Sweetest Punch, a recently released, mostly instrumental collection of the same material arranged by guitarist Bill Frisell, it sounds downright lively.
And as with most of Costello's records since Spike in 1989 there are at least a couple songs (the despairing "God Give Me Strength," the wistful "I Still Have That Other Girl") that genuinely deepen his repertoire.
His biggest problem seems to be encroaching studio fussbudgetiness — and that's easily circumvented when he plays live, especially when he goes it alone or with Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve, whose honky-tonk licks and lounge furbelows provide all the decoration his best tunes really need.
Though Costello hardly remakes his back catalog nightly the way Bob Dylan does, for each gig he freshens up a well-considered selection of old and new items — usually in equal doses, always paced for maximum effect. If you won't take my word for it, seek out Warner Brothers' limited-edition 1996 box set Costello & Nieve, which features an EP apiece from five U.S. dates the duo played that year and is the best proof I've heard of Costello's continuing relevance as a performer.