Washington Times, August 25, 2001

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My Aim Is True, Spike, All This Useless Beauty

Elvis Costello

Christian Toto

The other Elvis, erstwhile punk rock icon Elvis Costello, never left the building in the first place. Rhino Records, which recently acquired Mr. Costello's back catalog, is releasing revamped, expanded versions of his albums in groups of three over three-month intervals.

The label's first salvo, My Aim Is True, Spike and All This Useless Beauty, highlights Mr. Costello's solo efforts. The Attractions, his frequent collaborators, either are absent or remain in the background on each disc.

The updated records reveal a singer-songwriter with a feverish need to outgrow his power punk roots, often with stirring consequences. Each features liner notes by Mr. Costello, ever the dyspeptic wit, and full lyrics, a boon to all who have tried deciphering his coagulated warble.

A second disc accompanies each album, jammed with the expected amalgam of B-sides, live tracks and demo cuts meant exclusively for Mr. Costello's loyal flock. Dig a bit and some gems, such as a precious version of "Hidden Shame," emerge.

My Aim Is True, Mr Costello's blazing 1977 debut, sags slightly under the weight of a fresh listen. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" still dazzles, and "Alison's" heartbreak is as palpable as ever. But songs such as "Mystery Dance" and "Sneaky Feelings" have become more quaint than worthy of rediscovery.

By the time of the "Spike" sessions (1989), Mr. Costello's songwriting tackled political machinations along with the depths of human hope and misery.

Spike, which produced the bittersweet "Veronica," benefits from a sonic upgrade though its inconsistencies aren't glossed over. "Last Boat Leaving" paints a wrenching portrait of family separation, but "Miss Macbeth" sounds a maladroit attempt at Beatles-style storytelling. The album also leans heavily on news headlines, witness diatribes against former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ("Tramp the Dirt Down") and capital punishment ("Let Him Dangle").

It's also somewhat indulgent, with its galaxy of guest stars (Roger McGuinn, Chrissie Hynde, Paul McCartney) and oft-maudlin arrangements ("Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," "God's Comic").

All This Useless Beauty, Mr. Costello's last full-fledged rock album, remains an uneven pastiche of songs written primarily for other musicians. His dabbling with drum machines produces the driving "It's Time," and "Starting to Come to Me" is as exhilarating as it is clever. But a few tracks such as "Distorted Angel" teeter toward adult contemporary malaise. "Beauty's" other pleasures include the rambunctious "Shallow Grave" and the pageantry of "Little Atoms."

Through all three releases, Mr. Costello's winningly obtuse vocals never distract from his lyrics, among the most inspired of his generation. That's a fact this imperfect triplet of releases underscores with every spin.

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The Washington Times, August 25, 2001


Christian Toto reviews the Rhino reissues of My Aim Is True, Spike and All This Useless Beauty.


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