Remember when Elvis Costello used to stand and croon with that broken-winged catch in his voice, a gawky, appealing Buddy Holly look-alike? Well, he's moved on to the cerebral world of chamber music, learned how to read and write music, and joined with the Brodsky String Quartet for a collaborative project inspired by the recent news story about a Veronese professor who decided to answer a series of poignant letters addressed to Juliet Capulet, of Romeo and Juliet fame.
Costello acted as editor and author on texts and music contributed by all the members of the quartet, and the poetry is powerful and tender, ranging from suicide notes to annoying chain letters. Once you get used to the smooth blend of strings behind Costello's warm, emotional vocals that sometimes caress, sometimes slap, the words in your ear, it's a dynamic combination.
Most of the arrangements are standard four-part chords, but the music, co-written by Costello and the quartet, marks the beat by clever construction instead of drums. Cuts like "Romeo's Seance," a rowdy love song in six-meter that breaks the four/four dominance of rock, have the players plucking or bouncing the bow on the strings for sizzling punctuation.
Don't call this "crossover schlock" — Costello has found a new formula that neither compromises his own talent as a singer nor makes the Brodsky, already established in the classical world, sound out of place.