The latest news from the Elvis Costello camp is that he's still going strong, this time with New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Allen Toussaint. But it doesn't necessarily mean a full-scale leap into the New Orleans style.
Costello, the ever-elusive practitioner of a thousand styles, has disbanded his old group, the Attractions, and signed with a new record company, Warner Bros. The result is Spike, a virtually self-produced album that includes a slew of accompanists, including Paul McCartney and Roger McGuinn as well as Toussaint and the Dirty Dozen. It was recorded in New Orleans (at Southlake Studios), Los Angeles, London and Dublin, and it arrives after a three-year hiatus in recording.
As with previous Costello efforts, the songs of Spike offer no easy rides. It's musical literature with no pretense of easy accessibility — either you have a code-book or you ignore it.
It's no secret that Costello admires Toussaint's piano-playing. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" features Toussaint generously, along with five members of the Dirty Dozen. As usual, Toussaint is a model of the decorative accompanist, and the Dirty Dozen are used more as a conventional horn section than as a rollicking brass band. They are put to more characteristic use on "Chewing Gum," which sounds like the Dirty Dozen meets James Brown's JBs at a construction site.
Spike also contains a Costello first — an instrumental track played by the Dirty Dozen. It's called "Stalin Malone," which Costello said he had a vocal for, but liked the Dirty Dozen's playing so much he chose to leave out. Trumpeter Gregory Davis and baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis are the standouts on this jazz composition, and one suspects that the ending was strictly the Dirty Dozen's idea.
Elsewhere on Spike, allegory and dense imagery, not compositional convention, dominate the song styles. "God's Comic" and "Let Him Dangle" are evidence that the great songwriter continues to forsake formal concerns for the seductive. ambiguity of certain literary effects. "Let Him Dangle," for instance, is based on a real-life English murder case, but introduces too many details for a proper song-pace.
Costello fares better with the lighter pop touch of collaborator McCartney, whose bass is heard on "Veronica" and "This Town." Both are examples of the jauntily fleshed-out pop Costello excelled at with the Attractions.
Spike may cut across a truckload of styles, but it's not because of any something-for-everyone plan. It's a rhythm-and-blues-rockabilly-jazz-folk affair carried out by players with credentials. The use of New Orleans musicians isn't presented as a taking-on of the city's style. Costello just likes the way Toussaint and the Dirty Dozen play.
The songs of the self-produced Costello may sound unfinished. No longer is he a restorer of discarded pop-music styles, but he's still the foremost maverick in the business.