Milwaukee Journal, November 6, 1990

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Costello set is disappointing in the wrong ways

Terry Atkinson

Though it may seem strange, it's true: Many Elvis Costello fans are going to approach his new, two-CD compilation the way some nice-but-much-rejected nerds approach women. They've been burned before and are wondering whether they're going to be burned again.

Costello fans have been burned by previous Columbia CDs of the English singer-songwriter's albums. Instead of being remastered from the British masters (owned by the Demon label), Columbia has used inferior tapes that are a generation or more down in quality.

Oddly enough, the very thing that these fans might be dreading about Girls Girls Girls doesn't turn out to be a problem. Columbia has finally smartened up and used the Demon masters for these 47 tracks. Costello has never sounded better — except on imported CDs.

On the other hand, those same fans still may be disappointed with this first multi-CD collection of Costello's "best."

Possible objection No. 1: While the CD includes many of Costello's most notable compositions — including "This Year's Girl," "Pump It Up," "Accidents Will Happen," "Almost Blue," "Less Than Zero," "Shipbuilding" and "I Want You" (in the single version) — it doesn't have certain others, such as "No Action," "Radio, Radio," "From a Whisper to a Scream" or "Every Day I Write the Book." Nor does it have songs by other songwriters that Costello has ably interpreted (notably "Peace, Love and Understanding" and "My Funny Valentine").

Possible objection No. 2: No previously unreleased material is included.

Possible objection No. 3: Even though the 47 selections start with a song ("Watching the Detectives") from Costello's first album. (1977's My Aim Is True) the order from then on is not chronological. Costello selected and arranged the tracks himself (no other compiler or even digital engineer is mentioned in the credits) and he prefaces his remarks about each track by saying: "I have arranged the songs in four parts so as to try and tell a number of different stones. I will leave it to the listener to make what they (sic) will of each section..."

No big deal, especially if you're able to discern what Costello's "stories" are.

Possible objection No. 4: The booklet is pretty skimpy: its 12 pages contain no lyrics, don't note when the recordings were made or released (other than noting that they range from 1976 to 1986) and — as previously noted — there aren't complete production credits. The small black-and-white photos that dot the booklet aren't very impressively selected. either.

However, if those gripes don't turn out to be your own, you'll probably love Girls Girls Girls (which is also available on two cassettes).

Besides the adventurous lyrics, spiky music by Costello and his band, the Attractions (usually consisting of Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas), and the clean, clear sound, there's an enjoyable lesson to be learned in reading the artist's own comments on each of the 47 songs.

Though these comments are generally brief (often only a sentence or two) they're full of small revelations that will delight people who have been following the clever performer since his first album boasted "Elvis is King."

It's especially fun to find out what the inspiration (or the intention) was for certain compositions.

For example:

• "This Year's Girl" was written after Costello's belated exposure to the Rolling Stones' Aftermath album.

• "Temptation" began "as a holier-than-thou snipe at a very famous rock star.... However, by the time we came to record it, I'd had a lung full of the same poison."

• "Watching the Detectives" was "written after 36 hours of coffee and trying to listen to the first Clash album in a slumbering block of flats."

• "Less Than Zero" was composed after Costello had seen "the decrepit Oswald Mosley (a World War II-era British Nazi) excusing himself on television."

• "Pills and Soap" was about human use and misuse of animals.

Girls Girls Girls may not he the ideal Elvis Costello collection — perhaps someday. Columbia will honor him with a boxed set — but it's still one of the year's more fascinating compilations.


Milwaukee Journal, November 6, 1990

Terry Atkinson reviews Girls Girls Girls.


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Page scan.


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