As the ambitious Costello reissue programme heads towards completion, the contents of the bonus discs take on a greater significance, bolstering releases that may straggle to find sizeable audiences if left in their original form.
Almost Blue was a surprisingly successful 1981 digression into country, but a running time of just over half an hour means it could be regarded as poor value to anyone raised on compact discs. Thankfully, there an additional 27 tracks on Disc Two, kicking off with two notable collaborations: the George Jones duet "Stranger In The House" appears on an Elvis release for the first time, and is a thing of great beauty. The same can't be said for "We Oughta Be Ashamed," a hungover plod with Johnny Cash, recorded at Nick Lowe's home studio on Boxing Day, 1979, which would just about pass muster were it not for Costello's shaky harmony vocal.
Elsewhere, we get all the period B sides and Nashville out takes, invariably more rough'n'ready and less sanitised than the 12 songs that made the finished album, giving the impression of a sturdy bar band having a whale of a time. Often terrific, but nothing that matches the tender simplicity of the Almost Blue cover "How Much I Lied," easily one of EC's best recordings ever.
The last time Goodbye Cruel World was reissued, Costello's own sleevenotes described it as his worst record, and while the Langer & Winstanley 1984 production has dated terribly, it can't diminish the power of some of the singer's most brutally honest falling-out of-love songs ("Home Truth," "Inch By Inch"). Bonus disc highlights include the ballad version of "The Only Flame In Town" (a white boy disco mess on the original album) and the radical reworking of the Madness hit "Tomorrow's Just Another Day," plus several live solo recordings which illustrate just how much the GCW songs suffered from a slick studio overhaul.
Kojak Variety, a compendium of none too-obvious cover versions, sat on the shelf for five years until its 1995 release, but was welcomed by Elvis diehards as a chance to get hold of Dylan, Supremes, Little Richard and Aretha Franklin tunes he'd frequently drop into live sets. The bonus disc features another 20 covers, including 10 which Costello demoed in a single day when considering songs his hero George Jones should record. Jones never took the bait, but EC's takes on the likes of Springsteen, Hoagy Carmichael, Paul Simon and Tom Waits are a fine addition to any serious fan's collection. Special mention should also go to a garage band thrash through Cilla's "Step Inside Love" (from the Roddy Doyle TV series Family) and "But Not For Me," which saw him team up with veteran harmonica player Larry Adler on the highlight of a various artists album of George Gershwin numbers.
With just King Of America and The Juliet Letters to follow next year, the Elvis reissues have been fascinating Costellophiles the world over, and although this trio might appear on paper as the least essential, the archivists have done a bang up job in fleshing out collections which are still well worth exploring.