The latest installment in Rhino's campaign of deluxe two-disc reissues of the most important, most consistent single-artist catalog this side of Dylan brings two undisputed classics (Imperial Bedroom and Armed Forces) and one seriously underrated effort (Mighty Like A Rose).
Armed Fores finds Costello, the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe rising to the New Wave challenge with a user-friendly batch of quirky yet infectious, even Abba-worthy pop songs, many using military images, including Hitler, as a metaphor for love gone wrong. It should sound dated, but it doesn't. And the bonus disc is easily the most consistent of the new reissue series, tacking on a batch of B-sides previously found on Taking Liberties, a handful of alternate versions and nine early classics captured live and sweaty in concert at Hollywood High School two months down the road from Live at El Mocambo.
By the time he arrived at Imperial Bedroom, his baroque-pop masterpiece, Costello had traded the youthful abandon of those early live shows for a more sophisticated sound, with keyboard wizard Steve Nieve providing Sgt. Pepper-worthy orchestrations. But it didn't happen overnight. And now you're free to hear a number of the false starts it took to arrive at the flawless gem that is the finished product on a bonus disc that's overrun with versions of the songs when they were merely works In progress. While it's kind of interesting, it's hard to get world up about clearly inferior versions, unless, of course, you thought Anthology was better than Revolver. On the plus side, they throw in a cover of Smokey Robinson's "From Head to Toe," a classic B-side from the era. Lose the bonus disc and the album remains a four-star classic.
Mighty Like A Rose was easy to dismiss in context, coming as it did as something of a disappointment after Spike, a post-Attractions album that had come as something of a disappointment after Blood and Chocolate. But it's got some undeniable performances. "The Other Side of Summer" makes good on the title, kicking sand in Brian Wilson's face with its cynical take on the mythology of Endless Summer. There's even a dig at rock's most sacred cow, John Lennon ("Was it a millionaire who said 'Imagine no possessions.'") There's another nasty highlight called "How To Be Dumb." And even when he turns the anger down a notch or two on the bittersweet "So Like Candy," you can feel him seething with contempt. But that's OK. He wears it well. And on the bonus disc, you get a second chance to hear a number of the songs he did on MTV Unplugged — enough, in fact, to make you want to hear the whole performance. Rhino?