Schenectady Gazette, June 3, 1994

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Singer Elvis Costello has little to prove
but still plenty to say


Michael Hochanadel

That perfect Memorial Day weekend was just a warm-up.

Summer actually starts this week when Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Starlite Music Theatre both open for music.

SPAC presents Elvis Costello and the Attractions with the Crash Test Dummies Sunday. And the Starlite brings back the Neville Brothers Tuesday.

When Costello played the Palace Theatre in Albany solo in early 1990, he first joined opening act Nick Lowe on stage for one song, then suggested everybody go see NRBQ at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

After intermission. Costello performed a stirring solo retrospective of sorts just as the 47-song Girls Girls Girls summarized his dozen-album first decade that same year. (Rykodisc has just reissued the complete Columbia albums on CD.)

Typically, Costello now looks forward and backward at once.

For his new album, Brutal Youth, he reunited the Attractions — his first band, who backed him on his first US tour in 1977, including a Page Hall show, and a Palace performance several years later.

As Girls Girls Girls makes clear, Costello’s talent filled a void.

Elvis Costello arrived just as punk rock began to run out of raw anger, and started searching for songs and a broader musical perspective. Costello had both — often distilled from a record collection big enough to match his very big ambitions. He may have sounded original by pumping up punk rock with melody, and shifting its focus inward from the headlines to the contents of his own head; but he’s always been a shrewdly resourceful assimilator rather than an iconoclastic innovator.

He told Pulse magazine that the early hit "This Year's Girl" is based on the Rolling Stones’ "Stupid Girl." for one obvious example. And he said of one of his early albums. "one song is the Velvet Underground, one song is the Byrds. another is Motown." Perhaps his most direct appropriation is "Temptation." which virtually Xeroxes a Booker T and the MGs riff.

On the new album Brutal Youth, "London’s Brilliant Parade" wanders from melody to melody with a boisterous youthful restlessness like the early Kinks or Faces. "13 Steps Lead Down" also echoes British pop of the late 1960s/early 1970s with its raucous rave-up of distorted guitars, clattering drums and a driving beat.

"Rocking Horse Road" puts a reggae spin on Nell Young. Costello ironically drawling the lyrical gem. "Just look at me, I’m having the time of my life. Or something quite like it."

For all his skeptical misanthropy and dour demeanor. Costello actually seems to be enjoying himself in Brutal Youth — which may always have been the case actually. When he played Page Hall, for example, he seemed to lose his temper when a fan laughed as the whammy bar flew off Costello’s guitar. Costello hastily retrieved and replaced it, then confronted the fan with a blunt obscenity. But he delivered it with a good-natured giggle he couldn’t quite suppress. Here, on Brutal Youth. he plays, sings and leads the band with the relaxed air of someone without much to prove, yet plenty to say.

The band’s supple support sounds completely natural. Costello told Pulse that their comfortably familiar musical contexts spurred him on to an almost maniacally productive period of songwriting. He said he wrote six songs in a single day: and apparently drew them from the same wellsprings of what a skeptic might well call "classic rock" ..— a category that ironically now embraces Costello himself.

Costello said he crafted "20% Amnesia" to sound like "a cross between Prokofiev and the Rolling Stones"; and if that sounds like a stretch, so was bridging some bitterness to reassemble the Attractions. Last to rejoin, but simply because he was last to be asked, was bassist Bruce Thomas, whom Costello criticized in the song "How to Be Dumb."

Reuniting is a demonstration of how to be smart.

Not only has punk rock spawned a startling nostalgia, but Costello and his Attractions project an urgent immediacy that (still) sounds fresh (again).

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The Daily Gazette, June 3, 1994


Michael Hochanadel profiles Elvis Costello ahead of his concert with The Attractions, Sunday, June 5, 1994, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY.

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