Three years ago when Elvis Costello made his American debut on Saturday Night Live, he risked acceptance in the States to make a stinging, though valid, comment on the dismal state of American popular music.
Many people considered his performance a disaster, and it has been an uphill struggle for Costello ever since.
Costello's first three albums have chalked up respectable sales, his last album Armed Forces going gold. But he has yet to make the big breakthrough.
Get Happy!! (Columbia JC-36347) just might be the album Costello haters will learn to love. Gone is the image of the little beady-eyed, spike-topped geek snarling his way into your living room. This year's model comes complete with a conspiratorial smirk and wink from those Buddy Holly horn-rims. Elvis wants to be friends.
But don't get me wrong. Get Happy!! is still an Elvis Costello album, all 20 songs and 50 minutes crammed with high-insight, low-compromise emotion. Costello is, after all, the most thoughtful songwriter going. It's just that now we get a little honey with the vinegar.
The groundwork for Get Happy!! was laid in the '60s by the Four Tops, Sam & Dave, Martha & the Vandellas, Wilson Pickett, the Supremes and Otis Redding, to name a few of the Tamla, Stax and Motown influences that permeate the album.
But unlike so many white performers who have made a career out of homogenizing black music, Costello and his Attractions have produced a happy synthesis of rock-n-soul.
If there's a more perfect combination than Costello, keyboardist Steve Mason (aka Steve Naive), bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas, I haven't heard it.
Mason has traded in his squeaky Vox Continental organ for a full-throated Hammond and the Thomases (the pair are not related) anchor a rhythm section so sweet that a cynic might suspect some sort of sinister genetic engineering had taken place.
I was fortunate enough to catch Costello's Columbus gig early last March. The concert was marred by an abysmal sound mix and a nervous, edgy performance. After the show, Costello made several racial slurs he insisted afterward were poor attempts at humor. He later held a press conference to deny that he was a racist.
So it was all the more intriguing when Costello rolled into Dayton's Victory Theatre last St. Patrick's Day, all smiles and singing from the soul as passionately as he had raved a few nights before. Get Happy!! should make it crystal clear that Costello's allegiances lie as much with black American music as with English rock. Want to get happy? Alternate this album with cuts from the Greatest Motown Original Hits LP. The attraction is irresistible.