New Jersey Star-Ledger, June 5, 2009

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Another side of Elvis Costello

Jay Lustig

Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes will perform Tuesday at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank and Wednesday at the Beacon Theatre in New York.

Elvis Costello is talking about Lou Reed, who appeared last year as a guest on the Sundance Channel's music-and-conversation show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With .... Costello says the show went well, even though Reed is a notoriously difficult interview.

"I think it's because people sometimes want to approach him only through the image created by the very first work he did, and they do that with me as well," says Costello. "They're sort of surprised when you have a different outlook, and when you don't remain fixed in time."

Few rock artists have stayed less fixed in time than Costello, 54. The breathless urgency of his early work in the late '70s made him a punk-rocker, or at least an angry young man, in the eyes of the world. But he has consistently confounded expectations since then, recording in styles ranging from R&B (1980's Get Happy!!) to crooned piano ballads (2003's North) and working with everyone from Burt Bacharach (1998's Painted From Memory) to the chamber-music group the Brodsky Quartet (1993's The Juliet Letters).

His new album Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is, once again, something unexpected: a collection of songs recorded with country-bluegrass masters like Jerry Douglas, on dobro, and Stuart Duncan, on fiddle. The musicians also form his new touring group the Sugarcanes; they'll present their first concert Tuesday night at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, and also perform at New York's Beacon Theatre on Wednesday.

Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is not a genre exercise, just a new way of presenting a typically rich and complex set of Costello songs, including four written for a song cycle about Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. Two of the other songs were originally penned for Johnny Cash (who recorded one of them, "Hidden Shame"), and one was composed with Loretta Lynn. The only tune on the album not written or co-written by Costello is "Changing Partners," a pop standard that has been recorded by artists like Bing Crosby, Patti Page and Dinah Shore.

"I didn't set out with a quest for authenticity," says Costello. "I just set out with the intention of recordings songs that I had, and doing them as well as I could in a short order of time, so we didn't overthink it."

He recorded the album in three days. His last release, 2008's rock-oriented Momofuku, was a similarly quick project, taking just nine days.

"I don't think it should take any longer than that," says Costello. "The Beatles' first record took a day. What in the world are people doing spending six months making a record? How long does it take to play a song?"

Throughout the album, Costello displays his usual penchant for adventurous rhymes and cunning wordplay, in an often serious but occasionally humorous way.

In "She Was No Good," he sings of "genteel Northern prosceniums / Filled up with imitation Europeans / Down along the river of rough damnations / By the blood-stained cotton and the slave plantations."

In "Sulphur To Sugarcane," he plays a rakish character, singing "The woman in Poughkeepsie / Take their clothes off when they're tipsy / But in Albany, New York / They love the filthy way I talk."

Costello admits he's not very good at the technique, favored by most country writers, of expressing simple things in a simple way.

"It doesn't come naturally to me," he says. "I wish I could write like Lucinda Williams. I wish I could write like Hank Williams, but I can't. I write like me.

"I have written some very straightahead songs. But people don't expect them from me, and they don't particularly respond to them as readily as something that has more of a puzzle to it. And that's good. It's good that people will engage with them and also, sometimes, they need to engage a bit more to really find what's going on. Not everything gives up its secrets in the first hearing."

Even though he grew up in England, Costello was exposed to country music at a fairly young age.

"It's part of American popular music, so some of it filters through," he says, adding that his interest grew when rock groups like the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Band started experimenting with country-rock hybrids in the late '60s and early '70s.

"It helped to open it up, and make you realize that everything comes from somewhere. And then you hear one or two of these (country) artists a bit more in the context of the broader sense of their work, rather than the one track that would poke through in the Hit Parade in England, and you start to appreciate what a song like (Cash's) 'I Still Miss Someone' is about.

"Then it becomes a question of actually finding the music - physically finding it - because it wasn't that easy to get. I didn't have an unlimited amount of money. And in some cases, it took until I came to America for the first time, 30 years ago, for it to really open up, because then I could go and hunt down records."

His first attempt at country, his 1981 Almost Blue album - featuring no-nonsense covers of songs written by artists like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich - still stands as, probably, the biggest surprise of his surprise-filled career.

"At that point in my life, I didn't feel that the way I felt was best expressed in my own idiom, in my own words," he says. "I just wanted a simpler way of expressing things."

His 1986 album King of America also had some country flavor. Some of those songs may show up on the current tour, he says.

Other material in the setlists, he says, could be anything from reworked versions of his early rock songs to songs he hasn't recorded yet. Since making "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane" a year ago, he says, he has written at least two albums of material.

In addition to touring with the Sugarcanes this year, he will present some shows with his rock band the Imposters, as well as solo and orchestral dates. He also may tape more Spectacle: Elvis Costello With... programs; he just got the word that the series will be back for a second season.

He mentions, as one of the highlights of the first set of shows, the time when he was singing with Smokey Robinson, and the living legend turned to him and said, "You take the lead."

"I couldn't believe that was happening," says Costello. "That seemed completely backwards."

Another memorable moment came when he showed Robinson a 1980 music video that featured him and his band of the time, the Attractions, executing goofy Motown-like dance moves as he sang "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."

"There were a couple of things like that," says Costello, "like on the Tony Bennett one, I played the tape of Tony Bennett and I with Count Basie in 1983, when I looked like some kind of animal caught in the headlights. I don't even know what I was doing there, trying to sing 'It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).' I couldn't have swung if you put a rope around my neck at that time.

"Those couple of clips ... that isn't something that another interviewer could really do. They couldn't show a clip of themselves making a total ass of themselves. So I have that over the average interviewer. I even have that over Charlie Rose."

Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes.

Where and when: 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Count Basie Theatre, 99 Monmouth St., Red Bank; 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Beacon Theatre, Broadway and 74th Street, New York.

How much: $65-$85 for Red Bank; call (732) 842-9000 or visit $49.50-$89.50 for New York; call (800) 745-3000 or visit

NOTE: For the complete transcript of the interview used in this article, click here.


The Star-Ledger, June 5, 2009

Jay Lustig interviews Elvis Costello ahead of concerts with the Sugarcanes, Tuesday, June 9, 2009, Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ, and Wednesday, June 10, 2010, Beacon Theatre, New York.


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