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Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet – The Juliet Letters

And then there’s Elvis Costello, for whom there’s no such thing as predictable. Given the day, I like him or not, depending on variables… if it’s an off day, maybe it’s just not what I want that day, or perhaps it’s whatever weird angle he took at the time didn’t hit me right, or maybe his voice grates on my nerves (it often does)… But there are other times it’s all great and I’m riveted. This is (mostly) one of the latter occasions.

Inspired by an Italian professor’s letters to Shakespeare’s Juliet, Costello goes way out into the field yet again, and returns with gold. Along for the ride is the Brodsky Quartet, and it’s a moody, atmospheric, romantic excursion. It’s contemporary classical music, chamber music, even. It has pop sensibilities, though. It plays like a stage performance. It’s not trying to be perfect, and it is never boring.

I still cringe at his voice, at spots, but the playing is stellar, the arrangements are engaging, and the overall vision is worth it.

Being adventurous pays off, this time.


Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach – Painted From Memory

This was half great. I loved the music, all lovely arrangements and beautiful melodies. But the vocals were bad too often. It was fine when things were held in check, but once they went for power, it was painful wailing with voices not built for it anymore. I want to enjoy it but I keep flinching, waiting for those times to come.

Graeme Thomson – Complicated Shadows

It took me a long time to finish reading this book, because I kept putting it down in disgust. I am not a huge fan of Elvis Costello, though we do have the one Hits set here and I like some of the songs well enough. The disgust comes from what an insufferable prick the guy seems to be. How badly he treated others around him, and how he behaved in general, and yet people (for the most part) just let him do it because he’s (purportedly) some sort of genius. That may well be, but for someone in the public eye, he sure sounds like he was (and could still be, for all we know) a jerk.

A jerk to his first wife and his son. A jerk to his bandmates, the media, his label(s) and even his fans. He reads like an impetuous child, storming off-stage and ending shows early, refusing to play the hits, making records that he thinks are challenging but only serve to alienate people and then when they fail to sell well, it’s all the label’s fault for not promoting it enough. Um… what? Never mind what he said to Stephen Stills about Ray Charles and James Brown (for which he never really did apologize), that was probably just the child being drunk and worse than normal. Yeesh. It was all very tiresome.

Tiresome, particularly, given how hard the author, Thomson, worked to make him sound less like a jerk, here. Honestly, the guy has written his ass off for this book, apologizing politely for all sorts of miscreant behaviour. All towards softening the blow, smoothing out the obvious rough points (and there were many) while inflating the Genius status as often as possible. The book’s a total blow job, in other words. 

I’m not really sure how Costello got away with it. He’s like the drunk, crazy uncle who behaves atrociously but gets away with it because people just expect it from him. Some even enable him. It’s just sad. He’d have been better to remain Declan MacManus. As soon as he put on those glasses and that hat and became Elvis Costello, the persona took over and he lost control of it. I’m no psychologist, but it’s how it seems to me, from this text.

Anyway, we go through all the phases of his career, with the Attractions, producing the Pogues (and ‘marrying’ their bass player, Cait O’Riordan, with whom he had a long relationship). Of course before that was Bebe Buell, Liv Tyler’s mom. And now there’s his current marriage to Diana Krall, of course. And we go through all the musical and stylistic changes too, the ups and downs and oddities. Fans will care. 

All that said, he did write many great songs. He did fearlessly try new things, even classical and jazz music, at the risk of alienating all of his fans (not like he cared, from the sounds of it). And it may be true that truly great art only comes from single-mindedly pursuing your goal, whatever it may be, even at the expense of everything around you. The artist suffering for their art, blah blah blah… But you don’t have to be a jerk about it.

After finishing this, I might still try out a record or two, just to see what all the fuss was about with the music, but I don’t need to know anything else about the man himself thank you very much.

Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

This is another disc I ordered with my Airmiles points, same time as the Steve Earle (see previous post). I hesitated to order it. You see, I know that there is a version out there for about $18 that has three bonus tracks on it, and I like both of these artists enough to want those extra tracks. However, it’s hard to say no to free Roots and Costello, so here it is. Maybe one day, when Mike and I are in Taranna on a record shopping trip for example, I’ll find the bonus version in a used shop. For now, I get to hear the album proper and that makes me happy. 

Walk Us Uptown is the first single, and it’s a helluva groove. The lyrics are pure Costello. It took me a few listens (I had it on the youtubes before I got the CD) to realize I had to lay back and let the song come to me. I couldn’t work to hear it. Now it makes perfect sense and I love it. Sugar Won’t Work is a sweet soul song with Costello warbling over the top of it. Its strolling pace and dextrous bass work are great. Refuse To Be Saved is pure Isaac Hayes-style funk. Yummy.

Wake Me Up is such a simple tune, I wasn’t sure at first that it would work. But it’s in the very simplicity that lies this tune’s strength. Maybe not the album’s strongest track, but if it was the only song you heard from the album, it’d still shine. Tripwire is a sweet love song that is so slow and drawn out that it feels like it could fall apart at any minute. Stick Out Your Tongue is another slow creeper, which I thought would work well late at night but I always do this late at night and, well, it’s cool but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe I need wine. I dunno.

Come The Meantimes brings back the shuffle, it’s a cool tune but I could have done without the bell they hit, at unpredictable intervals. It’s weird and distracting. I spent the whole song waiting for it to come and that’s not cool. (She Might Be A) Grenade finally makes me realize they’re going for the slow jam, the candles-lit slow dance on this whole record. I get it now. That I got halfway through the album before I figured it out is a bit alarming, but there you go. …Grenade is a solid tune, knowing now what I do. Cinco Minutos Con Vos has some sweet vocals from La Marisoul, and still carries that slow groove torch.

Viceroy’s Row and Wise Up Ghost do more of the same. In a good way. Now it’s expected, I like it even more. And hey, I’ve also realized something else: This album is supposed to be taken as a whole. It’s not a jumble of ideas thrown together. I get that now. It’s a whole-picture thing.

But wait, there’s one more track! If I Could Believe is a sweet piano tune to close out the record. I like it. Very pretty.


I’m not totally sure how I feel about this album, yet. I need more listens. You see, I love the Roots. And Elvis Costello has his moments, GREAT moments, for sure. In my head, if I asked myself what would happen if this group of artists got together, I’m not totally certain I would say this album is what would happen. But it did. Blue Note released it. It came to my house for free from Airmiles. It’s in my iTunes. I played it all the way through and there it is. Something nags at me, though. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe I was hoping for more? But more what, exactly? ALSO: Where is Black Thought? I know I was tired when I played this, but I didn’t hear him utter one word the whole record! Weird.

This is a great late-night slow down album that you’ll wanna throw on the hi-fi when you’re wanting to sex up your partner(s). Light some candles. Drink some mellow wine. Turn the lights down low and get it on, baby, yeah!

Elvis Costello – When I Was Cruel

Elivs Costello is one of those guys that has been around so long that people talk seriously about his collected output as a whole rather than on a record by record basis. This is silliness, of course, because an artist makes a record like they do when they do because they want to do it at that time. Of course, you know that. But I just wanted to get that point out there before I said something you might think was critical laziness: This record harkens right back to the best pop amazingness of his early years.

There have been points in his career when this guy has taken himself way too seriously, releasing records that were, well, pretentious and full of some goofy sense of self-importance. Some would buy that stance, others wouldn’t. But for me the best of this major artist’s work stems from the times when he just lets it be and goes with the moment. This is one of those records. It’s rockin’, jazzy, uncomplicated fun that sounds like a Carnival of Costello inside your skull. There’s enough here to keep you amused for hours on end. Many songwriters hope for their entire careers to write one song as good as any of these. Fantastic.

Track Listing:
01 45
02 Spooky Girlfriend
03 Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)
04 When I Was Cruel No. 2
05 Soul For Hire
06 Petals
07 Tart
08 Dust 2…
09 Dissolve
10 Alibi
11 …Dust
12 Daddy Can I Turn This?
13 My Blue Window
14 Episode Of Blonde
15 Radio Silence

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