This is tricky. The three Costello re-issues, each with copious extra tracks, author's liner notes and so on, can be bought separately, while Live At El Mocambo can't. But purchasers of all three studio originals can send off for a free copy of the live one. Or the whole lot can be bulk-bought as a boxed set, 2½ Years. There are sophisticated shopping decisions ahead, because much of the "extended play" material is enticing.
My Aim Is True, Costello's 1977 debut, is remarkable not only for its star turns — "Alison" and the perversely parenthetical "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" — but the fine performances by Clover, the Californians who served as pick-up band in the studio. However, this stout endeavour is enhanced by another 10 tracks including the first hit, "Watching The Detectives," sundry oddments and, best of all, a handful of acoustic demos - their uncluttered clarity suggests he could have gone out solo like young Dylan or Paul Simon and never bothered with noisy beat groups.
Still, This Year's Model shows the benefits of establishing his own band, The Attractions. With Steve Nieve developing his apt input from hurdygurdy organ to straight piano solemnities, there's abundant character in the lurching "This Year's Girl," the melancholic "Little Triggers" and the headlong rush of "Lipstick Vogue," as well as certified classics "Pump It Up" and "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea."
While This Year's Model's additional tracks are only vaguely stirring (apart from the manic "Radio Radio"), they're a highlight on Armed Forces. Long after the event, "Oliver's Army," "Accidents Will Happen," "Green Shirt" and "Sunday's Best" generate an oppressive atmosphere which can stand the alleviation of a forthrightly romantic "My Funny Valentine" and the striking simplicity of the Live At Hollywood High EP — offering possibly the best recorded performances of "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison" and "Watching The Detectives."
The EP (as was) casts an unflattering light on what Demon calls the "legendary" Live At El Mocambo set. While it has presence in terms of fired-up crowd noise and The Attractions responding at maximum revs, on the whole Costello's songs don't take kindly to such excitements. The sense behind the detail and complexity of his writing, and even the warmth of his voice, come on strongest when he plays it quiet and cool.