British new-wave rock of the late 1970's has produced two undeniably great songwriters. One is Sting, of the Police. The other, Elvis Costello, is still struggling to find an American audience wider than the hip intelligentsia that has supported him through his metamorphosis from a punkish rocker into an ambitious pop classicist. And Sunday, in the first of three local appearances this week at Pier 84, the pop-classicist side of Mr. Costello shown more brightly than ever.
Mr. Costello's set was dominated by songs from his last two albums — the dauntingly dark meditation on sex-as-power, Imperial Bedroom, and the newer, lighter Punch the Clock. Performing with Mr. Costello and his band, the Attractions, were four horn and brass players. Their presence dramatically altered the feel of many of Mr. Costello's songs.
Fleshed out with horns, the sinewy reggae-influenced "Watching the Detectives" became a Blood, Sweat and Tears-styled pop production number. In a more recent song, "The Greatest Thing," the horns repeatedly quoted from the introduction of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." "Shabby Dog" was embellished with touches of jazzy flute playing, and other arrangements alluded to 60's soul music. The horn arrangements underscored the solidity of Mr. Costello's songs, clarifying structures that used to be implied, and bringing out the tricky jazz rhythms in Mr. Costello's jumpy, staccato melodies.
Vocally, Mr. Costello displayed a genial open-heartedness compared to the tight-lipped angry rocker of only a few years ago. His performance of the ballads "Shipbuilding" and "Kid About It" found an especially compelling blend of passion and smoothness, in which his elegance of phrasing and use of delayed vibratto brought to mind the sophistication of people like Chris Connor. The only glaring flaws in Mr. Costello's performance were his consistent flatness of pitch and his garbled elocution. If Elvis Costello hopes to progress further into the pop- jazz mainstream, these problems must be overcome.