New Musical Express, October 30, 1993

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Playing with the full Declan

Elvis Costello / Two And A Half Years

Terry Staunton

In the lumbering, corporate '90s it's not unusual for our fave raves to leave an irritating gap of two-and-a-half years or more between releases, but back in the days of 'new wave' the likes of Costello were churning out albums every 12 months with relative ease.

Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus had a very fruitful first two-and-a-half years, recording a total of 52 original songs — some of which are seeing the light of day for the first time on this impressive collection. Here are El's first three albums (My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, Armed Forces), all lovingly remastered with bonus tracks aplenty, plus the near-legendary radio promo album Live At El Mocambo, featuring The Attractions at their fiercest on stage in Canada in 1978.

Two And A Half Years is, of course, a particular joy to the Costello trainspotter with its little insights into the great man's songwriting: acoustic demo versions of "Mystery Dance" and "Green Shirt" both include verses which never made it onto the official releases, while the previously unheard "Cheap Reward" features lyrics which eventually cropped up in another song ("Lip Service"). Chuff! Chuff! Woo! Woo!

It's instructive to compare these early gems with Costello's later work. On My Aim Is True we are reminded of El's early country rock influences and he apologises in the sleevenotes for his "blatant imitation of certain American singers and songwriters". We forgive you, Dec The nine bonus tracks unearth two true gems in the aforementioned "Cheap Reward" and the one surviving recording from his days with folk group Flip City, the much bootlegged "Imagination (is A Powerful Deceiver)". This Year's Model brings The Attractions on board to add vigour and vinegar to Costello's lyrical venom, particularly on "Lipstick Vogue" and "Big Tears," the latter fattened up by the guest guitar of Mick Jones. El Mocambo can be taken as a companion piece to the studio work of the time and is irrefutable evidence that The Attractions were one of the best live bands in the world.

In retrospect Armed Forces, still Costello's biggest selling album, is a tad disappointing. The anger of its predecessor is diluted and the lyrics too pun-heavy, their writer trying to prove that he's smarter than a sackful of Alecs. Here, though, this LP too is bolstered by its bonus tracks, especially the reading of Nick Lowe's "Peace, Love And Understanding" and the Live At Hollywood High trio of "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison" and "Watching The Detectives," originally a limited edition EP with early copies of the album.

Demon's repackaging of all things Elvis is off to a cracking start, and when you consider that the next brace of albums in the series — Get Happy! and Trust — feature a total of 34 songs, Phase Two should be rich with even more out-takes and unheard goodies. As the man himself said on 1986's "Uncomplicated," this is only the beginning.


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New Musical Express, October 30, 1993

Terry Staunton reviews the 2½ Years box set.


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Photo by Barry Plummer.
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Cover and clipping.
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