It's usually a ho-hum affair when record companies reissue albums.
They touch up the sound to hide the hiss of analog recording, print a gold banner on the cover announcing a "classic" release and add a few bucks on the price tag.
This isn't the case with Rykodisc's reissue of Elvis Costello's first 11 records. The company and Costello are out to enhance and explain the musical significance of one of the most important and prolific (yet commercially underappreciated) musicians of the late 1970s and 1980s.
Rykodisc has released one or two of the albums in chronological order a few months apart over recent years.
The series ends this month with the rerelease of Blood & Chocolate. Costello's 1986 reunion with his band The Attractions as well as producer Nick Lowe. Earlier this summer, Rykodisc offered a new version of another 1986 release, Costello's solo effort King of America.
The albums bring to a fitting end the nine-year period covered by the Rykodisc reissues — what probably will turn out to be the most creative years of Costello's career. (However, last year's strong release, Brutal Youth, may indicate yet another Costello comeback.)
Blood & Chocolate and King of America display the breadth of Costello's songwriting talents. The songs range from countrified boot stompers to folk and jazz ballads, from Beatlesque pop to snarling rock.
Gone on King of America is much of the wrath, anger and frantic melodies of his earliest albums. Most of the songs were written on acoustic guitar and are rooted to the "unplugged" format's quieter, more introspective sounds. But the wit and wordplay of "Brilliant Mistake," "Little Palaces," and "Indoor Fireworks" place all three songs among the best of Costello's career.
The more upbeat numbers include a diverse array of musicians, including members of the other Elvis' backing band and jazz bassist Ray Brown, famous for his work with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and other jazz greats.
In contrast, Blood & Chocolate is possibly Costello's loudest and most brooding recording. It's also among his most intriguing.
On many of the tracks, Costello spits out his lyrics like venom from a snake bite.
"I hope you're satisfied what you have done." he snarls on "Uncomplicated" to a lover who has jilted him. "You think it's over now. But we've only just begun."
The theme is continued on "I Want You," a rewrite of the Beatles' "She's So Heavy." "Tokyo Storm Warning" offers one of Costello's more accessible, upbeat stomps, despite one of his most sarcastic choruses. ("What do we care if the world is a joke / We'll give it a big kiss... We're only living this instant.")
However, the real reasons to buy these reissues — especially if you already own the earlier CD or record versions — are the extensive liner notes written by Costello and the extra tracks and bonus discs offered with both.
Most of the extra tracks are reinterpretations — not quickly done studio remixes — of previous songs. Or they're songs penned with other artists that didn't seem to fit on any of Costello's albums.
King of America comes with five songs not on the original release, including the stellar rockabilly number "The People's Limousine," written with T-Bone Burnett. Also, the first 15,000 copies of the reissue contain an extra five-song disc of live cover versions of songs written by the likes of Waylon Jennings and Percy Sledge.
Blood & Chocolate has six extra songs, including the odd but fun pairing of Costello and reggae great Jimmy Cliff on "Seven Day Weekend." The first releases contain a 78-minute interview with Costello about his career.
To occasional music listeners, such attention to historical detail and completism may seem vainglorious (on Costello's part) and overblown (on the record company's part) — especially since few of Costello's records have sold well.
But for serious music fans who haven't listened to Costello enough to fully appreciate him, these reissues are a must.