Imagine if Elvis Costello was your therapist. Asking him to help you record an album is somewhat akin to a visit to the psychiatrist's couch.
Wendy James, the former lead singer of Transvision Vamp, was having trouble recording her solo album, so she wrote a letter to Elvis Costello asking for advice on what to do. The mighty one responded by sending her a tape of songs he had rejected for his own efforts. She promptly recorded all of them. The result is a wildly uneven, but often fascinating record, by a singer whose talents may never reach full maturity.
Of course as one should expect from Costello-penned album, lyrical genius abounds. While it's not quite the same without his patented sneer, lines like "She danced like an ambulance / Talked like a cartoon mouse / She took off her clothes and it brought down the house," bear that caustic Costello stamp.
James' vocal technique is interesting, but not always pleasant. She is capable of some grand vocal florishes and some wonderful nastiness on songs like "We Despise You." Often, though, she sounds like a little girl lost in a grownup's world. At times she adds to the material; other times she seems to treat complex themes superficially.
Basically, this album has all the right ingredients, but something is still missing. This doesn't mean that Now Ain't the Time... does not entertain, it does. But in trying to help James craft a pop album, Costello is playing Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. There is only so much even the most diligent instructor can teach.