Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 14, 2002

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What's in store? Elvis Costello

Gene Stout

Despite his lofty status as a punk and new wave icon, Elvis Costello doesn't mind playing the music he loves for a roomful of fans.

Costello is warming up for his latest U.S. concert tour with a rare "in store" performance tomorrow night at 7 at the new Easy Street Records on Lower Queen Anne. Admission is free, but space is limited to about 800 people. Suggested lineup time is 5 p.m. Passes will given to those who arrive early. For those who can't get in, the concert will air live on KMTT-FM, 103.7.

The brief solo performance will feature 6 to 8 songs from When I Was Cruel, Costello's first new album in seven years. The tour opens Saturday in Portland and continues with a sold-out concert Sunday at Seattle's Paramount Theatre.

"When I play by myself, it's sort of like the magician showing you all the tricks," Costello said in a phone interview from his home in Dublin, Ireland.

"It's a glimpse into the way the new record was put together. I don't just play acoustic guitar. I have my little home setup and some of the beat boxes that I use when I'm writing songs. When you strip a song down to those original beats, it's sort of like me playing a live demo."

When I Was Cruel features Costello's typically acerbic, literate and sometimes quirky songwriting. Among the more delightful songs is "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," a tune that humorously blurs the lines between dolls and humans: "You could make somebody a pretty little wife / But don't let anybody tell you how to live your life."

The song evolved from a script Costello and a friend wrote for a TV show that was never produced. The plot featured a group of girls from the Russian punk underground.

"I imagined they'd sing some sort of dumb, insolent thing," Costello said. "So I wrote a song, but it proved to be a little rich for the show. I decided to record it anyway. I always saw myself as an insolent Russian girl."

Over the phone, Costello was friendly, talkative and eager to share whatever was on his mind. One has to be verbally nimble to keep up with him.

When I Was Cruel, which follows nearly eight years of collaborations with such artists as Burt Bacharach, Mingus Big Band and Anne Sofie von Otter, is the highest-charting album in Costello's career, reaching No. 20 this week on The Billboard 200 album chart based on sales reported by SoundScan.

"It's great to hear that when you've been making records for 25 years," he said.

Costello, who launched his career in the late 1970s with the passionate My Aim Is True, set out to make a brash and swinging rock 'n' roll album.

"I've never called what I do rock," he said. "I don't care for the rock beat much. It's very slow. And a bit dull. At least in the late '70s, the beat was sped up. It didn't swing a lot, but it was energetic. And it got away with the fact that it didn't swing.

"I actually like music that swings. The old-time '50s rock 'n' roll definitely had a lot of swing in it. When the roll went out of it, it lost a lot of its charm. And as you can hear, there's quite a lot of swing in this record."

Costello credits his new band, the Impostors, with putting some of the groove back in his music. The band features drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve of his long-running band, the Attractions, and newcomer Davey Farragher on bass.

"Davey is a different kind of bass player and new to our scene," Costello said. "He's an American, and American bass players tend to play a little deeper and a little bit more rooted. They're not so interested in playing lead guitar."

Some of the new songs evolved as the band tried to work out arrangements suitable for a concert tour. The show blends garage rock with more carefully orchestrated material.

"There might be some ballads if the mood strikes us," Costello said. "The ballad isn't the big feature of the show, I must say. It's more of a rock 'n' roll show. There isn't even a grand piano on the stage."

Costello plans to bridge the gap between his earlier, more obscure songs and those on the new album with a selection of his best-known tunes.

"I don't think there's an obligation to play the entire history of your life every night," he said.

"If you're going to play a song just out of sentiment, that's not a good enough reason. You should play a song because you really feel something for it."

When he performed at Bumbershoot in 1996, Costello brought a dozen guitars and a very busy guitar "tech" with him. He'll have even more guitars on the current tour.

"I'm kind of an idiot savant of the guitar," he said.

"I deliberately kept myself from learning guitar in the school-book way. Because I think it's good to have one instrument that you approach almost with the same mind that you did when you were a kid and you just liked to make a mess with paint.

"Really great guitar players can get a lot of different tones out of an instrument. I tend to sort of do one dumb thing with a guitar. I like the way one feels or sounds and the way it feels in my hands for a certain song. I like to just turn it on. I never touch the controls."

Earlier this year, Costello teamed up with singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams for a CMT Crossroads concert special.

"I'd play with her any day. I think she's in the same class of songwriters as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. She's as economical and poetic a lyricist as you could ever hope to meet."

Costello will soon return to TV — as a character on The Simpsons.

"It was fun to visit them and see how they work," he said. "I just read the lines and they put in the pictures afterward. I've seen the drawings and it's very cute. Of course, I look a lot better as a cartoon character."

© 1999-2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer


Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 14, 2002

Gene Stout interview EC about When I Was Cruel.


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