ICE, July 2001

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ICE magazine

US music magazines


Elvis Costello stops to take stock

Rhino overhauls his catalog with sundry bonus tracks

David Okamoto

Despite the snarling cynicism that earned Elvis Costello his reputation as a new-wave icon and "angry young man," the 45-year-old singer-songwriter has always worn his affection for everything from Memphis soul to Tin Pan Alley on his record sleeves. And that's the under-appreciated side of Costello that Rhino Records hopes to emphasize with its new expanded and remastered reissues of his Columbia and Warner Bros. catalog.

Parceled into batches of three, the campaign launches on August 21 with 1977's My Aim Is True, 1989's Spike and 1996's All This Useless Beauty, with each album carrying an additional CD of bonus tracks from the time period. The first three titles represent what Rhino senior VP of A&R Gary Stewart describes to ICE as the early, middle and most recent examples of Costello's "more eclectic, nuanced solo side." The first batch also establishes Rhino's thematic approach that eschews chronological order in an attempt to cast Costello's albums in a more revealing light.

We're not going to stuff and mount them for history," Stewart explains. "We're going to deepen them and make them relevant. Elvis is being rediscovered by people who are opening up their ears and viewing him as more than just this new-wave guy.... Over 25 years, he has accumulated this incredibly diverse musical vocabulary, and we want to release the records in a way that shows that off."

Each album will be packaged as a two-CD set priced at $17.98. The original albums, newly remastered by Rhino veteran Bill Inglot, will be presented on Disc One, while all of the bonus material - which includes every track added to the previous Rykodisc/Demon reissues, plus additional unreleased outtakes and demos - will be spotlighted on Disc Two. Each set's 28-page booklet will include lyrics for every Costello composition, plus new liner notes penned by the artist with his typically incisive, self-deprecating sense of humor.

"One of the reasons we're doing two CDs for the price of one, instead of cramming all the stuff on one disc," Stewart says, "is that CDs are not just storage units for us. I think the bonus material, whether it's the existing material from the Rykodisc/Demon releases or what we're going to be building from the bottom up on the Warner releases, is of high quality and deserves to be listened to - but not just as track 15 through 22."

Stewart says the purpose of the bonus discs is to provide context, not just collector's items. "We wanted to pick things that were in the spirit of the original records," he says. "While collectors are definitely interested in these, they are not the target market. Our primary goal is to get people who have started to rediscover Elvis with [1998's Burt Bacharach project] Painted from Memory - and have seen him crop up in some very interesting and eclectic environments - interested in his catalog. But we also understand that some people are buying these titles for the third time, and we have every intention of giving them more bells and whistles if they want to take that leap."

The 13-track bonus CD for Costello's bracing 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, boasts two recently uncovered "lost" outtakes from this period that he would re-record a year later with his band, The Attractions, on This Year's Model: a frenetic, overmodulated romp through "No Action" from the session with Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar of The Rumour that also yielded "Watching the Detectives"; and a pedalsteel-laced "Living in Paradise" from the My Aim Is True sessions with expatriate California band Clover. Costellophiles will notice that the twangy arrangement and drastically different verses of the latter tune date back to the 1975 demo that has cropped up on bootlegs of recordings Costello recorded while apprenticing in pub-rock group Flip City.

In addition to the nine bonus tracks added to Rykodisc's package, Disc Two will be rounded out by two more period chestnuts. The "Dallas version" of "Less Than Zero," with lyrics rewritten for American audiences to refer to Lee Harvey Oswald instead of British Union of Fascists founder Oswald Mosley, was first issued on Columbia's Live at the El Mocambo promo LP that Rykodisc marketed as part of its limited-edition Elvis box 2½ Years. And the 1977 live rendition of Bacharach and Hall David's "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" is from Live Stiffs, and offered the first hint of Costello's fondness for '60s pop.

1989's Spike was Costello's first album for Warner Bros. and came on the heels of his highly touted songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney. "He started to work with a wide array of musicians and arrangements, and really flexed his muscles," Stewart points out. "That's what a great artist does. He was always breaking away from expectations and not wanting to make the same record over and over again. There are some incredible songs on there beyond 'Veronica' [Costello's only Top 20 hit, ever]. I think 'This Town,' 'Tramp the Dirt Down,' 'Baby Plays Around' and especially 'Deep Dark Truthful Mirror' are among his best compositions ever."

The Spike bonus disc consists of 17 tracks, including demos for 11 of the album's 15 tunes. The acoustic demo of "Veronica" turned up as a European B-side, but the rest have never been released and offer what Stewart calls a fascinating "mirror image" of the official album. Aside from the stripped-down instrumentation - which lends more immediacy to Costello's singing - the most striking difference can be heard in the demo for "Satellite," played at a brisker pace that emphasizes the gorgeous melody line that got buried underneath the released version's Bacharach-inspired flourishes.

"The execution on these versions is quite raw," Costello writes in his liner notes. "Unsurprisingly, they sound as if I am making it up as I am going along."

The bonus disc also sports the demo of "Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness," a rejected submission for a Disney film later recorded with Marc Ribot and Rob Wasserman for Wasserman's Trios; and the original version of "Stalin Malone," with Costello reciting the poem that was printed on the original LP sleeve over The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's strutting instrumental. The rest of the tracks were previously issued only on European singles and American promo CDs: "The Ugly Things," a faithful cover of a Nick Lowe-penned Brinsley Schwarz favorite; a clangy, lo-fi cover of "You're No Good," the Betty Everett hit also recorded by The Swinging Blue Jeans and Linda Ronstadt; a fingersnapping take on Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Point of No Return," a 1962 hit for Gene McDaniels; and a haunting take on John Sebastian's "The Room Nobody Lives In."

All This Useless Beauty, Costello's last effort for Warner Bros. and, surprisingly, his first album to be named after an included song, is his most misunderstood work, Stewart feels. It was conceived as a collection of Costello compositions recorded by other artists, but in the end, only four of the 12 tracks fit the jettisoned theme. Still, many critics and fans dismissed it as leftover material.

"In 1996 people weren't paying attention," Stewart says, "or they were taking the easy way out and labeling it as something it wasn't. This shows Elvis as a great songwriter, an adult pop singer. In many ways, it shows him at the peak of his artistic powers. Since it was also billed as an Attractions reunion album, it was promoted along the lines of the harder-rocking tracks like 'You Bowed Down,' but the core of the record is much softer. The band was actually breaking up at the time, and the music fits with Spike and My Aim Is True. So it's a bit of a solo record, with a lot of musical textures and complexity."

The 17 songs on the bonus disc, most of them unreleased studio demos and rough four-track cassette run-throughs from various eras, illustrate the tremendous potential of the album's original theme. The jaunty acoustic demo of "Complicated Shadows" was rejected by Johnny Cash, while "Hidden Sharne" ~ with its percolating rhythms reminiscent of "Folsom Prison Blues" inspired the Man in Black to record it on 1990's Boom Chicka Boom.

The jangling blueprint of "You Bowed Down," accepted by Roger McGuinn for his 1990 album Back from Rio, boasts a lighter, more delicate vocal than the Attractions' version that graces Useless Beauty. "World's Great Optimist," co-written with Aimee Mann, appears on her recent Bachelor No. 2 as "The Fall of the World's Own Optimist." Costello's piano version, with him singing some parts in a rare falsetto, has altered lyrics and "is even more drastically different than their two versions of 'The Other End of the Telescope,' " Stewart notes.

Other previously unreleased demos are: a stunning gospel-soul arrangement of "It's Time" that dates back to Mighty Like a Rose; "Mistress and Maid," co-written with McCartney and originally appearing on the latter's 1993 CD Off the Ground; an acoustic but aggressively rendered "Distorted Angel"; "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?," delivered in a higher key in dashed hopes of landing a place in Sam Moore's repertoire; a post-Goodbye Cruel World revision of "Only Flame in Town" with a different second verse, slowed to its original tempo with Aaron Neville in mind; the radical reconstruction of "The Comedians" featured on Roy Orbison's Mystery Girl; and "The Days Take Care of Everything," a rejected Orbison offering that uses lyrics later recycled on "Other End of the Telescope."

The bonus disc is then filled out with the B-side "Almost Ideal Eyes," a jazzy Useless Beauty outtake that Costello once said was intended for David Crosby; a cover of British alt-pop band Sleeper's "What Do I Do Now" (Elvis invited Sleeper to cover "Other End of the Telescope" on a limited-edition single, and to open for him in 1996); "My Dark Life," his collaboration with Brian Eno from the Songs in the Key of X soundtrack; a duet with The Fairfield Four on "That Day Is Done," a McCartney co-write from Fairfield's 1997 CD I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray; a haunting remix of "Distorted Angel" commissioned from Tricky for a British B-side; and "The Bridge I Burned," from the Extreme Honey compilation.

Rhino's current plans call for the above initial batch to be followed on October 16 by This Year's Model, Blood and Chocolate and Brutal Youth (representing "the archetypal, aggressive Attractions sound," Stewart says); Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom and Mighty Like a Rose ("the more elegant pop side") in January 2002; Get Happy, Trust and Punch the Clock ("these show you the Attractions evolving right before your eyes)" in April 2002; and Almost Blue, King of America and Kojak Variety ("his American roots-influenced records") in July 2002. Still to be scheduled are Goodbye Cruel World and The Juliet Letters. Stewart notes that outside of North America, the Columbia-era titles will be released via Demon Records, the U.K. label cofounded by Costello.


ICE, No. 172, July 2001

David Okamoto reviews the Rhino re-issues of My Aim Is True, Spike and All This Useless Beauty.


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Photo by Tim Kent.


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