Uncut, April 2002

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UK & Ireland magazines


Sweet nerd of youth

Chris Roberts

Second phase of bonus-packed reissue programme for Costello catalogue

This Year's Model   4½ stars (out of 5) reviews4½ stars (out of 5) reviews4½ stars (out of 5) reviews4½ stars (out of 5) reviews4½ stars (out of 5) reviews
Blood & Chocolate   4-stars (out of 5) reviews4-stars (out of 5) reviews4-stars (out of 5) reviews4-stars (out of 5) reviews4-stars (out of 5) reviews
Brutal Youth   4-stars (out of 5) reviews4-stars (out of 5) reviews4-stars (out of 5) reviews4-stars (out of 5) reviews4-stars (out of 5) reviews

Smart, snide lyrics seem out of vogue now (let's blame it on September 11 — it's taken the rap for everything else), but Costello's back catalogue proves the text of a piece of music is as crucial to its longevity as the sound. Score one to content over style, perhaps. He was the bitter bard of the punk era, with 1978's This Year's Model, his second album, articulating a generation's ire every bit as caustically as the Pistols' gigantic guitars. Others smashed things up; he sneered with a sarcasm just as damning to its targets.

That album, his first with The Attractions, boasted many of the career-breaking hits. "Pump It Up" exploited a visceral stomp, "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" revelled in intricate, flashy word games, and "Radio, Radio" (which wasn't on the original vinyl release), a piss-take of the airwaves, naturally, given the transatlantic irony lag, brought him lots of US airplay. The subversive stabs of "Lipstick Vogue" and underlying soul colouring "Little Triggers" and "Big Tears" have also survived as spleen-venting standards. Writing in Melody Maker that year, Allan Jones recognised the record as "so comprehensive, so inspired, that it exhausts superlatives." Even if some of us couldn't at first, see past the wilfully nerdy persona, the cutting couplets were planting demon seeds.

Like all these reissues, This Year's Model appears as a double, the second set gathering live versions, demos, B-sides and so on. A "Green Shirt" demo is clammily intense, and, in the 28-page booklet, Costello documents this breakthrough period. "I never understood the accusations of misogyny. Clearly [the lyrics] contained more sense of disappointment than disgust."

Blood & Chocolate closely followed King Of America in 1986, but was more minimal and raw. It marked an overdue if prickly reunion with The Attractions and key producer Nick Lowe. In the notes, Costello slags off his singing — "gasping for breath" — but given that the stand-out songs are about "a man driven insane by love," the emotive overspill is entirely fitting. "The intimate, if not pornographic, tone was typical of my mood at this time." He has to be talking about "I Want You," though the epic rush of "Tokyo Storm Warning" is just as essential to this dark work. The bonus disc includes a cover of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone," which the singer now feels should have made the original cut, as well as some mean (in every sense) solo acoustic performances.

Brutal Youth (1994) marked another of Costello's sporadic truces with The Attractions and Lowe, though it was co-produced by Mitchell Froom. It was a prolific time for the songwriter, who'd been hyperactively collaborating with everyone from The Brodsky Quartet to Wendy James. For the latter, he'd written "10 trashy pop songs in a weekend." For Brutal Youth, he reveals, he managed a mere six "outlines" in a day. Even then, Lowe told him there were "too many damn chords." The album leaps with consummate versatility from rasping rock ("Kinder Murder," "13 Steps Lead Down") to murky ballads ("Just About Glad," "Sulky Girl"), and is possibly the only non-heavy metal record to deploy the word 'knickers' in two different songs. Extras include "Idiophone" (the album's working title), multiple alternative versions, and "A Drunken Man's Praise."

Costello accidentally (perhaps) praises his output most accurately in writing now: "This isn't confession, this is pop music. Full of bravado and fallibility."

Music made by a human with a personality. it used to be all the rage.

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Uncut, No. 59, April 2002

Chris Roberts reviews the Rhino reissues of This Year's Model, Blood & Chocolate and Brutal Youth.

Nigel Williamson reviews the Concert For A Landmine Free World, Thursday, January 17, 2002, Hammersmith Apollo, London, England.


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Concerts for a Landmine Free World

Hammersmith Apollo, London

Nigel Williamson

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Imagine the scene. A songwriters' night in-the-round, passing the guitar at The Bluebird Cafe on a balmy night in Nashville. Emmylou Harris is up there with Steve Earle, duetting on "Can't Remember If We Ever Said Goodbye." "Sad songs make me so happy," she says and starts talking about Gram Parsons.

Then a passing Elvis Costello steps up to the mic to share vocals with Emmylou on "Sleepless Nights." John Prine has dropped by and Nanci Griffith is on hand, too. You've clearly died and gone to some Tennessee songwriting heaven.

OK, it's actually a drizzling January night in Hammersmith and we're not in some cool songwriters' bar but the distinctly tatty and unappealing Apollo. Minor details. Our five heroes are seated across the stage, Emmylou is our host for the evening and she's not going to let anything get in the way of creating the atmosphere of a proper, old-fashioned hootenanny.

She begins solo with "Red Dirt Girl" and halfway through Earle picks up a mandolin to accompany her. There's no set list and the singer's baton is passed down the line. Prine offers "Donald And Lydia," Earle sings a new song called "Valentine's Day," Costello is in strong voice on "Indoor Fireworks" and Griffith impresses with "Listen To The Radio." At this stage, there's not too much interaction between them, although as the proud possessor of the best harmony voice in the world, Emmylou is kept busy as an in-demand impromptu backing singer.

The first half concludes with a powerful speech from a Vietnam veteran, reminding us why we're here. The Concerts For A Landmine Free World have been an annual event in America for four years, but this is the first time they've been to Britain. The facts are shocking. Landmines are the world's most indiscriminate weapon, killing or maiming innocent civilians long after the theatre of war has moved on. A total of 122 countries have ratified a treaty to outlaw them. Scandalously, America is not among them. Neither are India and Pakistan, who have recently laid the biggest landmine field in the world along the Kashmir border. It's a sobering note on which to end what has been a rather polite first half.

After the interval, things get livelier as our famous five seem more relaxed and ready to join in each other's songs. A stomping "Galway Gal" from Earle is a highlight, as is Griffith's "It's A Hard Life Wherever You Go," supported by a massed orchestra of acoustic guitars. Costello slightly misjudges the mood with "Alibi," a new song from his forthcoming When I Was Cruel album. As nobody knows it and the song is virtually tuneless anyway, it's hardly a team sport, although Griffith has a brave stab at some harmonising. The biggest cheer is saved for Prine, who adds a welcome touch of humour with an unbelievably brilliant rendition of "In Spite Of Ourselves," the title track of his last album.

It's a hugely enjoyable night out in support of a righteously good cause. And has anybody noticed how Steve Earle looks more like Ricky Tomlinson with every passing day? Landmines? My arse.

Photo by Gus Stewart.
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Photographer unknown.
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Cover and page scans.


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