Albums that arise out of a front-man taking a powder to let the group do their stuff, likethe more common occurrence of a "solo album" from out of the band structure, usually amount to a Hokey Pokey to bad banking: you put the two cents in, you take the interest out. Certainly, the Rumour lose personality points every time they release one of their tedium-filled records. Mad About the Wrong Boy by the Elvis-less Attractions qualifies as a pretty big gamble. I wouldn't say it's a winner, but when it's quitting time, Steve Nieve goes home with his paisley shirt still on his back.
Not that Bossman is out of the picture altogether, even if the somewhat fishy "Guitars by the Attractions" credit is true. For one thing, there's 16 tracks on Mad (four on a bonus EP... why that equals---) and seven of them are penned by that famed "team" of Brain & Hart (including the LP closer — clue! — "Camera Camera"). The nine compositions actually by the Attractions (split between Nieve and Thomas & Thomas) roam grounds similar to those of their leader. Nary a lyric is delivered without tongue burning hole in cheek, and outrageous musical cops abound — love that "Lonesome Little Town," lifted from "Everything I Own" by oft-cited new wave progenitors Bread.
Right. But like we say in New York, what about the bottom line? Obviously (to me at least) this is a record for E.C. fans only, whether or not he's actively participating. Sixteen songs are way too many; for all their versatility, the Attractions trip over their own cleverness and fall into plain old dullness often enough for substantial discomfort ("Damage," "Slow Patience," and then there's more). But when they get a-hopping, letting those smooth poppisms speak reams (so long as they can calmly clutter it up with a "No virgin vigilante" or two), partic. on side #2 with its three-song streak (tops on the LP) ... when all that happens, the Attractions provide a not unpleasing answer to the musical question, "Ah, but where'd. they be without Elvis?" Collaboratatively, it's still "Four is Fab" all the way, but if Mr. Costello's gonna nip off for the odd EP without his group, then there's no reason why Mad About the Wrong Boy should've waited another minute. In fact, faced with a (sure, hypothetical) lady-or-tiger offering of the Att'ns vs. E's "New Amsterdam" four-songer, I gotta say: there's safety in numbers. Especially when the numbers are as swell as "La-La-La-La-La Loved You," "Straight Jacket," and (audience participation time) your favorite song on Mad About the Wrong Boy.