Goldmine, February 4, 2005

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Almost Blue, Goodbye Cruel World, Kojak Variety

Tierney Smith

Rhino's latest batch of Elvis Costello reissues is as finely packaged as its predecessors, with the singer's lengthy self-penned liner notes bringing a wealth of insight into the songs and the creative process itself — liner notes simply don't get any better than this.

Of 1981's Almost Blue Costello describes a love of country music kick-started by his discovery of The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace Of Sin, then goes on to mention the personal backdrop of marital strife that led him to choose songs that suited his blue mood.

While hardly a natural country singer — Costello's voice is all nasal and no twang — his versatility as a performer, not to mention his good taste in cover songs, is beyond reproach.

The mostly melancholy numbers here, augmented by Billy Sherrill's trademark smooth production, are lovingly delivered in classic country style. Costello deftly connects with the heartache of a man who can't let go of the woman he's loved for years in Sherrill's "Too Far Gone," brings a rich poignancy to a life destroyed by his wife's personal achievement in "Success" and confers a ring of authenticity to George Jones' divorce lament "Brown To Blue." Costello dispenses with restraint altogether on a fierce rockabilly version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?" and offers a rousing take on the Merle Haggard classic "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down."

Almost Blue's bonus disc numbers no fewer than 27 tracks, including the retro country sound of "Stranger In The House," written by Costello with George Jones in mind and originally intended for inclusion on Costello's debut My Aim Is True (but deemed too country to make the cut), and the previously unreleased Jones-penned "We Oughta Be Ashamed," a moving duet with Johnny Cash, who nearly drowns out Costello. Several tracks were recorded at the Almost Blue sessions but never made the final cut. These include excellent readings of Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry" and Patsy Cline's melancholy "He's Got You," as well as songs from Costello's 1982 EP I'm Your Toy , which range from the weepy Conway Twitty ballad "Darling You Know I Wouldn't Lie" to the fervently sung "My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You," penned by Ray Price. Costello's live performances are uniformly vibrant — best of the lot is a wildly robust delivery of Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush."

Costello considers '84's Goodbye Cruel World to be his worst album. In fact, he wanted to shelve it completely, but writes that doing so "would have invited bankruptcy." Still, there's no escaping the fact that Costello's "worst" is better than many people's best efforts.

Costello wanted the record to sound "slow and mournful," again to reflect the "unhappiness and self-disgust" he was feeling at the time, but his producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley had different ideas, giving the record a deceptively cheery, accessible sound.

The album's opening track, a bit of blue-eyed soul called "The Only Flame In Town," a duet with Daryl Hall, traffics in the kind of slick blandness Costello generally avoids — but thankfully the song doesn't fit in with the rest of the record. Tunes such as the languid "Love Field" and the anguished "Home Truth" (where the agony of his busted-up marriage is felt in every line) boast melodies that are nothing short of beguiling, while Costello's downbeat state of mind is reflected in the rocker "Sour Milk-Cow Blues" ("start out as lovers and you end up as prisoners").

The album's 26 bonus tracks, a mix of demos, live songs and miscellaneous cuts that tend toward the mellow side, are closer in spirit to what Costello was originally aiming for. There is a blander, less sarcastic version of a song that appeared on '86's Blood And Chocolate ("I Hope You're Happy Now"), a rather irritating duet with Madness, "Tomorrow's (Just Another Day)" ("my decision," writes Costello, "to perform the vocals in the style of Anthony Newley may have been ill-advised"). How right he is.

Far better is his relaxed duet with Nick Lowe on Burt Bacharach's "Baby It's You" (the B-side of Lowe's single "LAFS") and an alternate version of "The Only Flame In Town," which he transforms into a 1950s-style ballad. The album's demos reveal in a larger sense Costello's astonishing melodic gifts. Who knew that "Joe Porterhouse" was such a whimsical-sounding number, while the emotional angst of "The Comedians" is even more keenly felt in this more intimate setting.

While 1995's Kojak Variety, Costello's overlooked album of cover material, is a strong collection of songs, the bonus disc is even better. Containing both new and original liner notes that reveal Costello's deep love of music in general and with drummers Jim Keltner, Pete Thomas, and guitarist Marc Ribot (among others) in tow, Costello takes a soulful slant on a variety of tunes, barreling his way through the Little Richard shouter "Bama Lama Bama Loo" and the Screamin' Jay Hawkins number "Strange," in which he sounds like a latter-day Bob Dylan (Costello mentions in the liner notes that he had laryngitis on a few cuts here — these may have been it). There's no shortage of angst here, the Bill Anderson-penned "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face" in particular. Originally recorded by The Louvin Brothers and done up here in R&B style, the song aptly conveys killer heartbreak ("Must you keep showing me pictures of him, boasting of his warm embrace?").

Kojak Variety's bonus disc contains songs recorded during the 1990s and offers more of the variety the album's title promises. Many of these songs were recorded by Costello and sent to Jones as suggested tunes Jones might like to record, thus his country-ish take on Bruce Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise" and raucous rockabilly spin on Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" and Gram Parsons' "Still Feeling Blue." There are faithful versions of powerful songs: the Dan Penn classic "The Dark End Of The Street" and Paul Simon's "Congratulations."

Given the wild diversity that marks this material, Costello's cover of Dave Bartholomew's "That's How You Got Killed Before," backed by the thrillingly rousing Dirty Dozen Brass Band; the gloomy traditional number "The Night Before Larry Was Stretched," a rolling Irish ballad; and a striking a Capella version of Van Morrison's "Full Force Gale," you could say that Kojak Variety's bonus disc is the best of this reissue lot.

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Goldmine, February 4, 2005, pages 34 and 56

Tierney Smith reviews the Rhino reissues of Almost Blue, Goodbye Cruel World and Kojak Variety.


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