Rhino continues to overhaul the Elvis Costello back catalog by reissuing three of the finest albums he released with The Attractions as his backing band.
One would have thought the brilliant Rykodisc reissues from several years back were the definitive word, but with Costello's direct involvement and anecdotal personal liner notes added, these are in fact an improvement. First off, it must be noted that as Rhino likes to send out CD-Rs with no art and unremastered sound, we can't really say much about how much better they are sonically or in terms of packaging. If the first round of reissues hold true, the booklets are very different, a bit longer and contain some new photos while losing some cool stuff on the Ryko versions, and the sound is a bit better as technology has improved. But, this doesn't really constitute an overwhelming reason to repurchase them.
To entice fans to buy them, then, they've expanded each album to a low-priced double disc so that it includes every track on the Ryko reissues, with a few additional tracks added (FYI in the case of This Year's Model, the two discs combined are only about 30 seconds too long for a single disc).
This Year's Model is arguably Costello's finest work, 30 minutes of sustained rage with brilliant lyrics, one of rock's all-time finest bands, and as an album, a statement, it's an unqualified masterpiece. If it's not already in a fan's collection, it's a clear candidate to be the next CD purchase. If one owns the Ryko version, here's what's missing: two fine live versions of album tracks from Capitol Radio Sept. 27, 1977; Costello's excellent cover of The Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" that originally appeared only on a vinyl single that came with the first pressings of the album and an Ian Dury song from that same Oct. '77 gig that has been available only via bootleg; a terrific cover of The Everly Brothers' "The Price Of Love" from a soundcheck in Sept. '77; radically different early rejected Attractions versions of "This Year's Girl" and "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea"; and a superb Attractions BBC version of "Stranger In The House." Add to that the magnificent "Big Tears" (with The Clash's Mick Jones) and three other tracks from the Ryko album, and it's a masterpiece, really.
Blood & Chocolate from 1986 was The Attractions' last album before the band broke up (semi-permanently). Parts of the album, notably "Uncomplicated," "I Hope You're Happy Now," and "Tokyo Storm Warning," find the band inhabiting the same musical milieu as This Year's Model for the first and last time, and all are among Costello's finest tracks. Overall, the album was/is genuinely excellent, too. As for the bonus CD, there's a generous 10 previously unissued tunes, this time not even close to fitting on a single disc, which doesn't explain why this time they left off one 12-inch B-side found on the Ryko reissue ("Town Called Big Nothing (Really Big Nothing)").
"Leave My Kitten Alone" ranks among Costello's best-ever covers and one of his finest rockers; as he said in the liners, it should have made the album. Previously it had been heard only via some live TV performances. "New Rhythm Method" is also excellent. The five previously unissued covers from a May '86 session are also fine, spare, acoustic additions to the Costello catalog, especially James Carr's "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man," Joe Tex's "Tell Me Right Now" and Conway Twitty's "Lonely Blue Boy." A very worthy if not essential reissue.
1994's Brutal Youth was the first Costello album I didn't originally buy (having finally gotten to the point where I was convinced that what must've been nearly 100 Costello records I owned was about enough). It's never been available in an expanded form, and frankly, I was dead wrong not to buy it, though I did pick up all the (excellent) singles ("13 Steps Lead Down" and "You Tripped At Every Step" rank among Costello's best singles). It was billed as the "return of The Attractions," although in truth errant bassist/mudslinging songwriter Bruce Thomas appears only on a few tracks, with Nick Lowe being the primary bass player, along with Attractions Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve. Given the previously "unexpanded" CD version, this time out we get 15 bonus tracks mostly recorded as demos in December 1992, all of them interesting and several excellent. Particularly good is "Poisoned Letter" — a raucous electric band demo that served as the basis for two rewritten songs used on the album. There was a time in my life when I felt I had to own absolutely everything Elvis had recorded, and at its best, disc two of Brutal Youth reminds me why — even the obvious rejects are often better than many artists' best work. Not a song on there that isn't better than this week's Top 40 that I read yesterday in Rolling Stone. And Brutal Youth itself has held up far better than expected. It's not essential, to be sure, but it's a very good work after all.