I'm reminded of that Honeymooners episode where, in Alice's absence, Ed gives Ralph a hand with the household chores by doing a little ironing. Stretched out on the board is Ralph's beloved bowling shirt with "Hurricanes" stitched across the back. Ed gets distracted, leaves the iron sitting on the shirt and before you can say "Bang! Zoom!" it's presto scorcho time. Just before he throws one of his gargantuan fits, Kramden inquires of Norton: "Is this your idea of a joke?" To which America's favorite engineer of subterranean sanitation replies: "No, that's my idea of a burn."
Almost Blue is my idea of a burn. It's certainly no joke. Costello has always had a soft spot in his solar plexus for country music; after all, the flipside of his first Stiff single was a C&W lamenter called "Radio Sweetheart." And even king weeper George Jones thought enough of Elvis's "Stranger In The House" to record it himself. But they were side trips, not the sort of main roads an angry young rocker like Costello was meant to go careening down.
Almost Blue is one big side trip. The main problem is that he didn't write any of this stuff. Every damn song's a cover . . . although this shouldn't really be cause for any initial alarm. Recall the verve he implanted in Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and Betty Everett's "Getting Mighty Crowded." But they were from the realm of soul music which is only a stone's throw from E.C.'s original rock 'n' roll base. But these country cuts, whilst sharing lyrical kinship with fave E.C. themes like betrayal and rejection, are musically turgid strangers in town.
It didn't have to be that way, but it appears that producer Billy Sherrill cowed the Attractions into submission – they've never sounded so docile or sluggish with pianist Steve Neive (what happened to "i" before "e"?) particularly asleep-at-the-wheel. Add to this "special guest" John McFee's pedal steel yin-yang twangs, occasional syrupy string arrangements and embalmed female back-up singers and you've got musical mildew up the drain pipe.
None of which would have if Costello had taken the trouble to put some conviction in his crooning. Time after time he comes off like some hack lounge singer coming to fingertip grips with heartbreak. Only thing is, the heartbreak's drowning in a sea of clichéd saphead angst vocal mechanisms. Somebody shoulda whacked that whine right outta his voicebox.
There's at least a half a dozen classic songs here by people like Merle Haggard, Charlie Rich, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Don Gibson, Big Joe Turner (token blues) and (surprise!) George Jones. All are available in their original (and far superior) versions as either 45's or assorted album cuts. Especially bad is Costello's trampling stampede job on Hank's "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)" and the flattened out dixie cup-depth he brings to Gram's mournfully sad "Hot Burrito #1."
So pass this by unless you're a diehard Costello fan (and even then you should think twice) and go score copies of the Burrito Bros Gilded Palace Of Sin, The Fabulous Charlie Rich or a good greatest hits set by Hank Williams or Patsy Cline. And wait for Elvis' next set of covers, one that sticks to nothing but R&B and soul standards. Working title: Almost Black.