It's no secret that English rocker Elvis Costello has a fascination with American country-western music. As unlikely as the combination seems of British bad boy and American cornpone, it's a mix that is both intriguing and revealing.
Costello has said in interviews that his favorite singer is country crooner George Jones. He wrote "Stranger in the House" for Jones and sang with him on a Jones album; Costello even showed up on Jones' House Box Office special, crooning country tunes.
With his new album, Almost Blue (Columbia FC 37562), Costello has made the move from country-western dilettante to full-fledged Nashville cat. Recorded in the country music capital and produced by country-western veteran Billy Sherrill, Almost Blue is a surprisingly effective country venture.
The connection between Costello's own songs and the country tunes he sings here is his raw emotion. Costello's compositions center on the failures of emotional entanglement, the sacrifices that eventually are for naught. It's no wonder then that Costello is drawn to such country-western classics as "Too Far Gone" and "Sweet Dreams."
The sense of resignation at romantic loss is similar; while too many country songs are portraits in self-pity, Costello's song selection here centers on songs that admit mistakes rather than pinning the blame elsewhere.
Costello's rough voice carries added weight on songs like "Sittin' And Thinkin'," "Colour Of The Blues" and "How Much I Lied." He makes the shift to honky-tonk blowsiness energetically on numbers like "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Use to Do)?" and "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down."
His band, the Attractions, offers credible, restrained backing, replete with country touches that never slip into country cliches. Steve Nieve's piano and organ work add subtle color to the arrangements, as does the pedal steel guitar playing of special guest John McFee of the Doobie Brothers.
Almost Blue is superior country music with a rock-solid base. Costello should win new fans from the country ranks while convincing his old fans of the value of country stylings.