This is a gem of a release, a once-only package that justifies getting yourself to a record shop immediately and buying one of these limited-issue boxed sets (only 1,000 are on sale in Australia). There are five, 25-minute discs, recorded live in Amencan cities across a week last May and, apart from a short visit from drummer Pete Thomas, it is Elvis Costello and his long-time keyboard player, Steve Nieve.
This is definitely not Costello and Nieve from the more roistering E.C. and The Attractions albums — it's much closer in spirit and execution to the dark beauty of 1982's Imperial Bedroom. We are in intimate mode. Imagine a small room, a spotlight on a stage slightly raised above the tables and chairs arranged around it. The microphone isn't swung about but held softly, the (real, not electric) piano is simply miked.
Since his recording with The Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters, Costello uses his voice more selectively and effectively, pliable and expressive — wrapping itself around the words, not just spitting them out.
Listen to him, for example, taking "My Funny Valentine" (which he first recorded nearly 20 years ago) or his own late '70s B-side "Just A Memory" and stretching their pathos, or reconstructing "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" into a torch song hanging by a thread. Or taking "Why Can't A Man Stand Alone," from his 1996 album All This Useless Beauty, and screwing up the tension a notch at a time until you feel something must break.
In this context — piano and voice primarily, guitar occasionally — there is nothing to distract you from the singing or the playing. The sound is so clear, so full of depth, that the flaws in Costello's voice are softened, the clarity of Nieve's piano technique accentuated.
It is a perfect environment for Nieve's playing. Always a dab hand with a jaunty hook or the Pele-like dribble through a trademark Costello melody, Nieve has too often been overlooked when he is a player with delicacy at his beck and call, with warmth just under the note.
There's so much more to say: the often very funny between-song talk, the choice of covers in each city (The Miracles' bracket in New York, for example), the sheer beauty of "Man Out Of Time." To miss out on this collection would be a tragedy. Don't.