When Elvis Costello launched his punk-charged brand of new wave in 1977 with the album My Aim Is True, it marked the beginning of an adventurous career as one of the best songwriters in the pop world. Born in 1955 in Liverpool as Declan MacManus, he was influenced by his parents' love of music — his father a singer in a big band and his mother a clerk in record stores, including one owned by Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
While angry, guilt-ridden rock songs filled his early albums, Costello's eclectic musical interests inspired him to explore soul, r&b, country, classical, even opera. He has collaborated with a broad range of artists, including Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, and the Brodsky Quartet, and contributed to Hal Willner's remarkable Charlie Mingus tribute, Weird Nightmare.
Yet his most potent work has been in the company of the Attractions, the superb band that backed him on all but one of his first dozen albums. Costello's most current release, Brutal Youth (Warner Bros), finds him reunited with the group for the first time in seven years. Meanwhile, Costello is overseeing Rykodisc's ambitious reissuing of his entire Columbia catalog.
This was Costello's first Blindfold Test.
1. Johnny Cash - "The Beast in Me" (from American Recordings, American Recordings, 1994) Cash, acoustic guitar, vocals.
[Two chords into the song] "It's Johnny Cash. I know this song well because Nick Lowe wrote it. Nick, who was married for several years to John's stepdaughter Carlene, tells a funny story about writing it. They lived in England and Johnny was spending some time with them. Nick stayed up all night once to write a song for him and by 3 or 4 in the morning he was convinced he could hear Johnny singing it. The next morning, somewhat chastened, he played it for him in a small, wimpy voice. And that was that. John put it away for years until it surfaced on this new album, which is terrific, wonderful. The sound is great. Johnny's got such a recognizable style. I'll give this 53 stars. One for every state, one for the moon, and two for the outer galaxies."
2. Latin Playboys - "Same Brown Earth" (from Latin Playboys, Slash, 1993) David Hidalgo, vocals, guitar; Louie Perez, drums; Mitchell Froom, keyboards; Tchad Blake, bass.
"I play this record all the time. I love it. I'll give this one 10 stars. David HIdalgo has such a great imagination. He could very well be a Duke Ellington someday. These songs are about real things, like people eating too much food and getting a bellyache. I also like the messing around with distorted sounds on this album. It's like getting somebody's home demo before the producer gets a hold of it and ruins it. This album proves there's hope for the corporate music industry, which was willing to bankroll this. Michael Bolton should be locked in a room and forced to listen to this record for 10 years. No, I take that back. He should just be locked in a room and kept away from any other soul records he might cover."
3. NRBQ - "I Want to Show You" (from Kick Me Hard - The Deluxe Edition, Rounder, 1989/rec. 1975) Terry Adams, keyboards, vocals; Al Anderson, guitar, vocals; Joey Spampinato, bass, vocals; Tom Ardolino, drums; Donn Adams, trombone; Keith Spring, tenor saxophone.
"It's NRBQ, isn't it? Oh, this is great! Terry Adams is a wonderful musician. Inside that track, there's so much going on. The vocal harmonies sounded like The Band. The saxophone could have been from the Neville Brothers or Ornette Coleman. Plus Al is working on a Bob Wills guitar sound. It's terrific to get all that in one piece without shoving any of it in your face. NRBQ is probably the greatest group in America. They defy all attempts to categorize them. They don't obey any of the rules. They're in that same alternative universe as the Grateful Dead. Did I give them any stars yet? They deserve 5,006."
4. John Coltrane - "Giant Steps" (from The John Coltrane Anthology, Atlantic Jazz/Rhino, 1993/rec. 1959) Coltrane, tenor sax; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Taylor, drums.
"This sounds like it was made yesterday. It has an incredibly clean sound. It's not a new record, is it? If it is, then the sax player is doing something similar to what was recorded in the late 50s, early 60s."
DO: I'll give you a clue. It's remastered.
"It's been incredibly remastered. That's not fair, especially after playing the Latin Playboys record, which was made to deliberately sound murky. So, I'd say it's Coltrane. It was disconcerting at first because it sounded too clean. I thought maybe this was a trick question, where there was something weird going on like when a Charlie Parker solo was taken off a record and a new backup band was used. Stars? Can I give 49 for this one? Coltrane was one of the few people who could play as many notes as this without becoming boring. When guitar players do this, I just want to shoot them."
5. Charles Brown - "B&O Blues" (from The Swingtime Records Story, Capricorn 1994/rec. 1948) Brown, piano, vocals; other band members unlisted.
"This is Charles Brown. It's an old one. His voice has gotten deeper as he's gotten older. It's wonderful. He's a terrific piano player, and he's got great style. His music is real, and it's got humor. I love his voice. He's been an inspiration to me. I've gone to a number of his live shows, and I love him. For this piece, I'll give 75 stars."
6. Charles Mingus - "Don't Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid, Too" (from Let My Children Hear Music, Columbia/Legacy, 1992/rec. 1972) Mingus and ensemble.
"Nine million stars for this one. It's Mingus. I love the tuba, and I love the burlesque element in his music. His work is the greatest. It's a bottomless well of music. I can't think of a composer since the 40s who is as imaginative as Charles Mingus. There's such a freedom in his music that allows for spontaneity. It's mind-boggling. Jazz is such a limiting name for what he did. It's truly American classical music. It's a great shame he wasn't as recognized as he should have been."