Tuesday, January 4, 2011



It's been quite a while since you could predict what a new Elvis Costello disc would sound like. Yes, he's still rocked when he desired, usually with his group The Imposters. But he's just as likely to lead them on a tour to a specific genre and region, such as New Orleans with Allen Toussaint or rootsy Tennessee on The Delivery Man. Many fans blanch when he goes further afield, into opera or vocal jazz. But they are just as likely to shrug their shoulders at basic rock discs (Momofuku). 2009's Secret, Profane and Sugarcane saw more favour, as Costello brought in some of the finest acoustic country players under the guidance of producer T-Bone Burnett, a style and partnership that has always worked will for the two.

Burnett is back for National Ransom, along with the core musicians, but instead of repeating themselves, the team has given us a kitchen-sink approach, throwing in a little of pretty much everything Costell's been about for the past two decades. Working with some of the acoustic players on mandolin, fiddle and double-bass, Imposters Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas on keys and drums, horns and strings and whatever else is needed, the disc is all over the map stylistically. The title cut is a raucous rampage tackling bankers and bad morals, the most understandable track on the disc. Then things, typically, get complicated. Jimmie Standing In The Rain is 1930's jazz vocal, complete with muted trumpet and fiddle.

Now, it all sounds great. These are wonderful productions, mood and instruments and tricks all combining to create an aural pleasure. When you try to listen to it, that's when it gets complicated. One of the classic criticisms of Costello is how he attempts to shoehorn as many words as possible into his melodies, and how relatable the stories actually are. Honestly there are few here I can even begin to describe. He often chooses antique words for effect, such as slattern to rhyme with flatten, or the opening line of "Running pell-mell and harum-scarum". The references and original inspirations are mostly hidden and obscure. He gives cryptic clues to the location and time period of each song (Five Small Words takes place in Tucson, Arizona, 1978), but you'll have to do some pretty serious detective work to find out more. Whether they are personal reference points for him, or historical events, at least you know there are complicated and dark stories lurking. Whether you want or need to know more, that's your choice. It drives me a bit nuts at times. Anyway, if you don't worry about such things, you will probably find this one of the most accessible Costello discs in awhile, thanks to its wide collection of styles and excellence of performance.
A Slow Drag With Josephine is a light dance from the 1920's, featuring zither, accordian and a whistling solo, possibly a hit song for a vaudevile show. You Hung The Moon is sentimental ballad, an attempt at a jazz standard style, and a good one. Costello's in his full crooner voice, the serious vocal style he uses for his forays into classical and jazz. I Lost You is a country-cajun hoedown. Bullets For The New-Born King is another slow, quiet one, this time a folk-political essay, with just double-bass and acoustic guitar. With all this playing around, when Costello returns to the more mainstream confines of rock, whether mid-tempo (Five Small Words) or go-for-it (The Spell That You Cast), the familiarity is a relief. All this challenging music can be a bit exhausting.

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