Philadelphia Inquirer, April 20, 1993

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An assist from Elvis Costello
helps Wendy James — and Costello, too


Sam Wood

Wendy James was at the end of her rope when she sat down to write a letter to Elvis Costello in 1991.

Her band, Transvision Vamp, had just released the forgettable — and forgotten — Little Magnets Versus the Bubble of Babble. She had become a cliche, a purring peroxide pinup in a trashy English new-wave band that had pretensions of becoming the next Blondie.

"I was asking for help, but nothing specific," James has said of her letter to Costello. "If there was one person who had faith in me, I could carry forward that challenge."

James asked Costello to write her a single.

Costello, who'd seen his stock bottom out with the poor critical reception for Mighty Like a Rose, apparently found a kindred spirit in James.

During a single weekend, Costello — with the assistance of his wife, Cait O'Riordan — filled her request. And wrote her nine more for good measure.

All 10 songs are included on James' solo debut, Now Ain't the Time for Your Tears, an artistic marriage of convenience not unlike the pairing of, say, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — he lends her class, she reciprocates with sex appeal.

James makes a clean break with her past, reinventing herself as a smart and saucy chanteuse. Costello — fresh from his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters — shows the world that he can still write affecting pop songs.

That's not to say Costello has dressed up these songs with his recently acquired veneer of gentility. Far from it. On Now Ain't the Time, Costello spills more bile than he has in years. And sometimes — as with the dreadful Puppet Girl" — at James' expense.

Musically, Now Ain't the Time is a straight-ahead new-wave record, and many of the songs would have made great jukebox singles at CBGB, the Hot Club and the Rat. "This Is a Test" echoes Costello's own "Radio, Radio" with a broadcast of rancor and raging self-doubt. "Fill in the Blanks" — packed with wall-to-wall bar-chords and New York Dolls guitar licks — is an adversarial anthem that could have been written in 1977 during punk's "Summer of Hate."

Still, Costello and James have no truck with nostalgia. "London's Brilliant" may be a snarling rewrite of "Clash City Rockers," but there's no missing the barbed attack on the Punk's-Not-Dead posse that goes "digging up the bones of Strummer and Jones."

Costello's aim is true, same as it ever was.

James' performance, though, is another matter. If Costello's lines require her to skip a beat or add an extra accent, her voice stumbles awkwardly, rushing right through with one-take disregard. And that gets annoying.

Still, in short bursts, her lack of polish works in the record's favor. Taken individually, the songs sound fresh, not over-rehearsed (a problem that has plagued Costello's own records in recent years).

All in all, it makes for an impressive solo debut. Question is: Who will Wendy James write to next? The album's title is a line from Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." Mr. Zimmerman, watch your mailbox.

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Philadelphia Inquirer, April 20, 1993


Sam Wood reviews Wendy James' Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears.


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