Orlando Sentinel, January 29, 1993

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The Juliet Letters

Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet

Parry Gettelman

★★★

Initially, the contrast between rocker Elvis Costello's nasal voice and the Brodsky Quartet's elegant classicism is awfully jarring. Eventually, you can kind of get used to it, but the combination still works only here and there.

Costello became a fan of the Brodsky Quartet after seeing the group play Shostakovich in London, and he later found out that violist Paul Cassidy, violoncellist Jacqueline Thomas and violinists Michael Thomas and Ian Belton were fans of his. Costello has done some genre-bending in the past, using jazz elements, Celtic folk arrangements, New Orleans brass band music, etc. For its part, the quartet has pursued such unclassical avenues as accompanying a fashion show and getting involved in visual-arts exhibitions.

But for all their good will and adventuresome natures, Costello and the quartet don't often find a way to bridge the distances between their styles. Costello puts his distinctive voice through unusual paces, holding on to notes longer and singing longer phrases than in his rock compositions. Sometimes he achieves an interesting, deliberately strident effect — as if he were in a Brechtian light opera. But there are no other instruments to mediate between the beauty of the string arrangements and the nasality of his tone, and the two frequently seem at odds, particularly when his voice is in its harsh, strained upper register.

The lyrics, by Costello and others, provide a somewhat unifying theme. They're in the form of imaginary letters to Juliet Capulet from a variety of troubled souls. Some require explication in the liner notes — "Swine," for instance, is ostensibly a piece of political graffiti. Others have immediate impact. In "I Almost Had a Weakness," Costello sings from the viewpoint of an aged woman who wishes no contact with her family: "Thank you for the flowers / I threw them on the fire / And I burned the photographs that you had enclosed / GOD they were ugly children."

The melodies were written by various members of the assemblage, in most cases with Costello involved. They are generally better suited to the strings than to Costello's voice — "For Other Eyes" and "Expert Rites," for instance, are too somber and legato for him. On the songs with a sense of humor, however, the weird contrasts seem mischievous and clever. The spritely, playful strings comically undermine Costello's voice and the vitriolic lyrics on "I Almost Had a Weakness." The satirical "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" makes quite brilliant use of the crazy stylistic opposition.

The strings are lovely throughout, and there are many wonderful passages, such as the Dvorak-like conclusion of "The Birds Will Still Be Singing." And although only a couple of tracks are really successful, the album does make for interesting listening.

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Orlando Sentinel, January 29, 1993


Parry Gettelman reviews The Juliet Letters.


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