No company has done more to raise the bar for reissues than Rhino, and nowhere is that more evident than in its magnificent overhaul of Elvis Costello's Columbia and Warner Bros. catalogs. While some may have initially groused over the fact that the newly expanded editions of Get Happy!!, Trust and Punch The Clock force the repurchase of the same albums previously reissued only a couple of years before by Rykodisc, the new versions, each packaged with a companion CD chock full of bonus tracks, more than justify the purchase price.
Kudos to Rhino for pumping up the value — at a retail cost of approximately $15, these two-disc sets are an indisputable bargain! — while not giving in to the temptation to divert the extras into a high-priced box set.
With that in mind, it hardly seems possible that those astute music enthusiasts at Rhino have actually outdone themselves with this fourth installment of the Costello reissue series. Focusing in on his early '80s output — specifically the albums Get Happy!!, Trust, and Punch The Clock — the reissues provide an incredible array of vintage material by way of demos, outtakes and live performances, all of which differ significantly from the selections that grace the original albums.
Moreover, the sound is noticeably improved; where many labels boast that their reissues are remastered, in the case of these discs, the audio difference is not only stated but substantial.
The bass playing pops out of these grooves, showing off the articulate patterns and undercurrents displayed in Bruce Thomas' fretwork. The keyboards sparkle, revealing a sharper tone, higher highs and a more vibrant quality. Even the drums sound better, crisper and richer than ever before. Add to that the exhaustive liner notes by Costello, and these packages become the defining standard by which all other reissues will forever be measured.
This wealth of riches inevitably reveals Costello's vast range. These three albums appeared in the space of as many years, not only yielding some of the best material of Costello's career, but also a bonanza of unreleased recordings. If anyone had any doubts about the fact that Costello is one of rock's best, if somewhat underrated, songwriters, the consistent quality of these songs ought to make that premise abundantly clear.
Get Happy!! offers an ideal example. Released after the initial rumble and rebellion of The Attractions' first three albums, it marked a dramatic departure that took the world unaware. A determined attempt to infuse an R&B element into his music (at least partially in an effort to make recompense for a drunken episode that found him spewing racial slurs during an infamous barroom encounter), two of its best songs are in fact classic covers — the confessional "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and "I Stand Accused."
Even so, Costello's original material more than matched the style and tone of these standards, as demonstrated in the vibrant treatments given "Possession," "Men Called Uncle" and "New Amsterdam." That's not to say that the band had dispelled their rock 'n' roll attitude completely, as the tracks "King Horse" and "High Fidelity" were to make abundantly clear.
The bonus tracks — 30 in all, added to the original 20 for a combined total of an astounding 50 tracks altogether! — add further insight into Costello's creative process. The reissue features formative versions of songs that would eventually show up on Get Happy!! as well as Trust. These include alternate takes (an even more demonstrative version of "I Stand Accused," a reggae-infused version of "New Lace Sleeves" and a supremely soulful "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down") and early demos (a fully fleshed out first take of "Men Called Uncle" and an acoustic "Seven O'Clock" are especially noteworthy) that provide a marked contrast to the finished final tracks.
As an added extra, the reissue includes two versions of Costello's classic "Girls Talk" (which Costello indicates he later regretted giving to Dave Edmunds), a revved-up version of "Watch Your Step," various outtakes and B-sides and five superb live tracks (a phenomenal "Opportunity" and a faithful reading of "Don't Look Back," among them) captured at various venues.
Trust, on the other hand, is a return to the spit and sass of the early Attractions, boasting some of Costello's best work. Its highlights include songs such as the ominous "Watch Your Step"; the resounding rocker "White Knuckles"; an early attempt at country crossover, "Different Finger"; and the haunting "From A Whisper To A Scream," a duet with Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook (whom Costello would later repay by co-producing Squeeze's East Side Story LP).
The fact that Trust turned out as good as it is seems rather remarkable given its circumstances; as Costello recounts in the liner notes, the recording sessions were fraught with difficulties. He had just come off a disastrous tour sans keyboard player Steve Nieve, who was sidelined due to an auto accident in Los Angeles. Stifled by drugs and alcohol and plagued with self-doubt, Costello was spiraling downhill and facing a marriage in shambles. A poor choice of studios and producer Nick Lowe's bout with the flu further hampered the early stages of recording.
All these circumstances added up to some of Costello's most provocative and foreboding songs to date, as evidenced in titles such as "Watch Your Step," "You'll Never Be A Man," "Shot With His Own Gun" and, of course, "From A Whisper To A Scream."
Still, despite the chaos whirling around them — or perhaps spurred onward because of it — Costello and company sound as inspired as ever. As evidenced by the tracks on the bonus disc, even outtakes such as "Black Sails In The Sunset" (which ended up as a B-side), "Big Sister," "Twenty-Five To Twelve" and "Sad About Girls" have a special resilience to them.
Their version of the rock 'n' roll standard "Slow Down" is as feisty as ever, while a defiant, up-tempo attempt on "Watch Your Step" betrays the venom seething just below the surface. Similarly, all the other early attempts at tracks that would later resurface in Trust's final incarnation sound formidable, even in these early versions. It's only when Costello attempts a series of brooding ballads the appropriately titled "Boy With A Problem," "Weeper's Dream" and "Gloomy Sunday" — that his melancholy mood truly betrays him.
While all three albums — and for that matter every album in this series — is essential, Punch The Clock perhaps best epitomizes the successful merger of quality and quantity that marks each of these releases. With nearly 40 tracks (twice as many on the bonus disc as the number included on the original album), it boasts some of Costello's best songs of the era as well as some of his most successful.
"Everyday I Write The Book," presented here in both its original version and a revved-up alternate take, gave him a legitimate chart hit (#36 in 1983), and in hearing that engaging intro here again, it's apparent why.
Other highlights include "Let Them Talk," the album's steamrolling intro; a lovely, languid take on Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding"; and the quintessential Costello compositions "TKO (Boxing Day)," "Charm School," "The Invisible Man" and "The World And His Wife." These tracks represent Costello at his most articulate; while his tendency to pontificate sometimes saps the punch from his material, here the lyrics and melodies work in tandem, resulting in some of his most memorable material.
As always, the additional tracks perfectly complement the original inclusions. The songs recorded for but not included initially — the aforementioned alternate take of "Every Day I Write The Book," a solo version of "The World And His Wife," as well as the tracks "Baby Pictures," "Heathen Town" and "The Flirting Kind" (the latter two eventually became B-sides) — are simply terrific.
A pair of tracks recorded for the BBC and five live numbers (including a daring medley that binds The O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" with Costello's "King Horse") recorded at the University Of Texas in September '83 reveal Costello and The Attractions at a peak. While the TKO Horns make their mark on a number of these tracks, Costello's 10 solo demos — stripped-down versions featuring only vocals with solo guitar and piano — effectively demonstrate the inherent strength of these songs.