Elvis Costello has gone through so many record companies over the past 15 years that he's beginning to look something like a transient. His latest partners at Rhino are reissuing Costello's extensive catalog, three albums at a time, each appended by an entire disc's worth of bonus material. Buyers of Rykodisc's near-flawless reissues in the '90s will recognize many of these tracks, but since Ryko stuck to Costello's Columbia material — and tossed on its extra songs to fill a mere single disc — Rhino's series has potential.
Judging by the first three titles — Costello's 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, his 1989 Warner Bros. debut Spike and his latest album with The Attractions, 1996's All This Useless Beauty — their aim is to appease fans purchasing this stuff again. The sound quality on My Aim Is True — the only reissue to repeat one of Ryko's so far — is similar to that of its eight-year-old predecessor, so it's clearly the bonus goodies that are the draw here (though Spike's original CD release suffered from early, flat muddiness, and the reissue definitely opens it up).
While My Aim Is True offers only four bonus cuts that aren't on the Ryko reissue (all nine of their "extended playls1" are included), the early version of "Living In Paradise," an outtake believed to be lost, is a real keeper. Along with "Radio Sweetheart" and "Stranger In The House," also here, it completes the trio of songs left off Costello's debut. They all swing in different directions, setting a career path ("Stranger" is a country tune, "Sweetheart" kicks around similar territory and "Paradise" is a restrained take of a song that would appear with more ferocity on his second album).
The bulk of the remaining My Aim Is True bonus tracks are demos of songs that originally appeared on BBC's Honky Tonk program. Spike, too, is filled with working versions of album tracks. Of the 17 songs on the second disc, only the "Vocal Version" of Spike's lone instrumental, "Stalin Malone," works as an integral part of the original album. The demos are vague, and the four songs recorded as B-sides — all covers made with a different crew than Spike — are interesting but slight.
Like the album itself, the bonus disc attached to All This Useless Beauty is somewhat slender. There are some good songs buried on the album, and the extra material likewise has some hidden gems. Foremost among them are "Almost Ideal Eyes," an outtake from the album sessions, and "World's Great Optimist," a song cowritten by Aimee Mann (who included it on Bachelor No. 2 last year) and a striking demo of a song never professionally recorded by Costello. In fact, he never officially released quite a few of the 11 Beauty demos. Its concept was based on songs Costello had written for others; similarly, the demos — such as "The Comedians," written for Roy Orbison, and "You Bowed Down," recorded by Roger McGuinn — are sketches given to others. They make the bonus material here the most intriguing of the bunch (Costello's liner notes, more extensive in these reissues than in the previous set of upgrades, are informative and inviting). That, basically, is what the expanded Costello catalog is all about. Here's hoping for more useless beauty.