Country music's charm has lured many British rock musicians into trying to recreate its distinctly American sound. A number of groups have experimented with and have been influenced by this exotic folk music from the colonies: the Beatles ("Rocky Racoon"), the Rolling Stones ("Country Honk," "Dead Flowers"), the Kinks ("Muswell Hillbillies"), Emerson, Lake and Palmer ("The Sheriff") and Elton John ("Country Comfort"). The latest and most extreme example of this phenomenon is Elvis Costello.
Perhaps this change shouldn't surprise us; it comes from an artist who switches musical camps more frequently than he does guitar picks. Although word had circulated that the sessions for Costello's new album were held in Nashville with Billy Sherill producing, no one expected Elvis to record such faithful readings of country classics. With few exceptions. Elvis has recreated the standard Nashville sound of a generation ago.
Oddly enough, the opening cut of Almost Blue briefly fulfilled our expectations of country music recreated in Costello's musical image. "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" is one minute and 34 seconds of the most furious and likeable rockabilly the Attractions has ever played (even more winning than Trust's "Luxembourg").
But the album abruptly shifts gears as guest guitarist (and Doobie Brother) John McFee's pedal steel takes over. The second song re-establishes the record's pace with a strict reading of "Sweet Dreams," a touching, but oh-so-slow tune embellished with saintly backing vocals and strings designed to suck the maximum emotion from the listener.
All the songs on Almost Blue are covers, ranging from Merle Haggard to Hank Williams. These authentic arrangements sound untouched from the times when George Jones and Conway Twitty laid down the vocals. Although Elvis does not have the vocal agility or the heritage of these men, he sings with convincing feeling to pull off what would have to be considered one of the most unlikely of stylistic conversions. Almost Blue may be Elvis' respectful tribute to the performers whose influence on rock music is seldom acknowledged.
We should not give you the idea that Costello has never before donned a rhinestone jacket, musically. "Stranger in the House" is country enough for George Jones to have recorded it in a duet with Costello on Jones' My Very Special Friends. "Radio Sweetheart's" sound was so appealing to Johnny Cash's daughter Carlene Carter that she covered it. Small wonder then that the Attractions seems quite comfortable playing country music; they back Elvis expertly.
Almost Blue is similar to Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive; the artist takes a detour from his standard material to take a serious look at the influences on his and other rockers' music. Each album is flawed; Joe approached his material too lightly and Elvis brought too little humor to his choice of songs.
We think Almost Blue is a noble and interesting experiment Already it hat. broadened our minds to aspects of count, music of which we were not aware. It is a listenable indulgence by Costello that is more than a curiosity but less than a landmark in his career. We urge open-minded music fans to listen to the album several times and expose your ears to some music so particular to our country, performed by an outsider.