Predictions are dangerous. They too often come back to embarrass you. (Remember when I wrote that WXRK had a good chance at becoming premier rock radio?)
But sometimes you can't resist, especially when it seems so safe. Two recent record releases already seem destined for many best-of-the-year lists, if not necessarily the same ones. They are King of America (Columbia), from The Costello Show, Elvis Costello's current guise, and Song X (Geffen) a Pat Metheny-Ornette Coleman collaboration.
To have new Ornette Coleman music is cause enough for celebration; his last record dates back nearly seven years, That's too long a time to say Song X is worth the wait, as good as it is.
Metheny does not come to mind as a Coleman disciple, his 80/81 record with some Coleman colleagues and a Coleman composition notwithstanding. Still, his guitar and guitar synthesizer (often sounding like a second, or third, saxophone) fit in perfectly here, whether he's playing in unison with Coleman's familiar sounding melodies or fashioning his own complex responses.
Bassist Charlie Haden leaves apparent virtuosity to the principals. He settles for subtle underpinning as only he can provide. Drummers Jack Dejohnette and Denardo Coleman power the free pieces appropriately. Dejohnette's cymbal work and straighter swing on the more conventional material (most of side two) return Coleman to an earlier time before he developed a fondness for doubled basses and drums.
Coleman himself is a joy, revealing throughout his link to Charlie Parker as a master of breaking down the barrier between technique and communicating feeling. He makes this most clear on the ballad "Kathelin Gray" and the boppish "Trigonometry." Rarely has an avant gardist sounded so accessible without giving an inch.
This band will appear at Town Hall in Manhattan on May 8. See the show. Buy the record.
Implicitly and explicitly, Costello, who has reclaimed his given name Declan MacManus, would like to put on a new face. King of America represents more evolution than revolution, however. And that's just fine.
The sound, acoustic with an edge, is a break with the past. Costello and producer T-Bone Burnett make excellent use of Elvis Presley's one time band (one of many ironies presented) on most of the tracks. Their rockabilly lives and breathes, even as it borrows heavily from "Mystery Train" on "The Big Light."
The Attractions play together on but one tune, and play well; keyboardist Steve Nieve adds his distinctive piano embellishments to a second song. Jazz great bassist Ray Brown anchors one ersatz blues (a cover of J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues," the only extraneous track) and an integral one, the original "Poisoned Rose." Throughout, Mitch Froom's organ recalls the late-night haze that Al Kooper's work lent to Blonde on Blonde. (Another Dylan tangent: the literary "Glitter Gulch.")
Lyrically, Costello's directness and intimacy here — on "Indoor Fireworks" and "I'll Wear it Proudly" in particular — may surprise those used to his obscurity. "Sleep of the Just," perhaps the best song from a woman's perspective written by a male since John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," may shock those who still view Costello as the angry young man. Costello's improving voice, as much as the writing, adds to the widened emotional palette.
What's familiar? Costello has not completely shed his insight into or ability to communicate anger or frustration. And despite the directness, he still gets a bit thick with the words here and there. The line "like a chainsaw running through a dictionary," like many lines, cuts several ways. And MacManus does not shy away from borrowing from Costello. "Our Little Angel," can be traced directly back to "Alison" and "You Little Fool."
Had Costello merely developed this new sound, sung as well as he does here, written 13 songs of this caliber (a good handful rank with his very best) and found the perfect cover for his past and present in "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," followers would have been satisfied. That he has done all of this on the same record makes King of America arguably his finest record to date.