For nearly three decades, Elvis Costello has been an unrelentingly eclectic force in popular music, exploring a number of styles including new wave, blue-eyed soul and old time rock. My Flame Burns Blue, an inclusive live album, ties in a sampling of the singer-songwriter's canonized pop songs with his recent ventures in sophisticated compositional works to create a suitably diverse listening experience.
Recorded at the Hague's North Sea Jazz Festival 2004, My Flame Burns Blue blends bits of miscellany with jazzy rearrangements of old favorites like "Watching the Detectives." The accomplished musicianship of the Metropole Orkest and the dazzling piano playing of longtime Costello collaborator Steve Nieve give cohesion and warmth to an otherwise mismatched grab bag of songs.
The set opens with the positively swinging "Hora Decubitus," a Charles Mingus composition with lyrics Costello penned shortly after September 11. "Life is a beautiful thing," he affirms over a flourish of brass and strings, setting the tone for a heartfelt performance.
Costello also finds inspiration in New Orleans composer Dave Bartholomew's "That's How You Got Killed Before," which has the band sounding like the in-house entertainment to a Jay Gatsby-hosted summer evening bash.
While the genre exercises provide many small delights, this set truly soars when Costello struts his classics in their stylish makeovers. "Clubland" gets a Latin twist, while strings and a lonely trumpet solo turn "Almost Blue" into a melancholy show tune.
The recent "Episode of Blonde," though a dark horse amongst these time-tested songs, becomes an unexpected show stealer. The stylish tango romp sounds like it was pulled straight from a French film noir and Costello sounds inspired spitting its venomous lyrics.
As a bonus, My Flame Burns Blue includes a second disc featuring Costello's first foray into classical music, 2004's Il Sogno, in its entirety. While this helps to bridge the extremities of Costello's career into one singularly entertaining experience, the result may be a disorienting listen for newcomers and the casually interested. For the dedicated, the album presents an enticing showcase for what could have been an ordinary odds and ends collection.