Chicago Reader, October 16, 1998

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Critic's choice: Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach


Peter Margasak

Glass-half-full types might listen to last year's Extreme Honey, the best-of collection covering Elvis Costello's years at Warner Brothers, and think, gee, this guy can do it all: he's composed chamber pop, covered old R & B gems, written with Paul McCartney, recorded with the Brodsky Quartet. But broad as Costello's range is, it just can't make up for the relative paucity of good songs he's come up with since 1989 — the kind of songs he wrote while he was on Columbia. Now he's got a new deal at Polygram, which is bending over backward to accommodate him, agreeing to release his quasi-classical offerings on its Deutsche Grammophon imprint, quasi-jazz on Verve, and pop on Mercury to market them all more effectively. His first release is Painted From Memory, a set of sophisticated pop songs written with Burt Bacharach. Bacharach's well ran dry about 20 years ago, unless you consider his self-parodying cameo in Austin Powers a creative renaissance, and renewed attention to his vintage work — everyone from McCoy Tyner to the friends of John Zorn has recently covered his tunes, and Rhino promises, promises a three-CD set of classic Burt next month — has only cast his current impotence in stark relief. Inspired by the success of the tune "God Give Me Strength," which they wrote for the otherwise dreadful film Grace of My Heart a few years ago, Costello and Bacharach probably figured that joining forces for an album could energize them both. For the most part, it didn't. Bacharach's contributions use his old tricks — odd time signatures, arcane structures, dense arrangements — but this complexity without the breezy hooks of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" or "Walk On By" doesn't count for much. (Remember prog rock?) Costello's writing covers the usual unlucky-in-love concerns, but his wordplay is tired, and while he's fine crooning his own melodies, Bacharach pushes him past his natural abilities far too often. The album has its moments — "Toledo" recalls Bacharach's old grandeur without sounding nostalgic, and Costello's infidelity metaphor in "The Long Division" is nice ("Can it be so hard to calculate / If three goes into two there's nothing left over") — but they're sadly scarce. At this performance both Costello and Bacharach will play separate greatest-hits sets before uniting in front of a 24-piece string orchestra to do songs from the new record. Friday, 8 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 312-443-1130 or 312-902-1500.

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Chicago Reader, October 16, 1998


Peter Margasak profiles Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach ahead of the concert, Friday, October 16, 1998, Chicago Theatre, Chicago, IL

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