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(Hear Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/3/2009)
Surely the among most fascinating and certainly the most prolific musical figure to emerge from the punk and new wave scene of the late 1970s is Elvis Costello. From the release of his debut album My Aim Is True in 1977, Costello has always gone in his own direction. Though associated with the punk scene that was just emerging at that time, his music was always much more multifaceted, lyrically literate and generally more musically tuneful. And he soon began to expand his musical reach beyond the edgy new-wave rock sound that he started in. Over the past 32 years, he has done country-influenced recordings, music inspired by Tin Pan Alley, collaborations with a classical sting quartet, a duet album with Burt Bacharach as well as one with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, a New Orleans tribute album with Allen Toussaint, and even appeared on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz program, a CD of which has been released.
Now for his approximately 35th album -- not counting compilation recordings and greatest hits packages -- Costello went to Nashville to record with some top studio musicians there, configured for bluegrass instrumentation. The result is a CD called Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, and it's another feather in Costello's crowded hat. It's a great blend of tasteful mostly acoustic instrumentation minus drums, with Costello's lyrics that are often in the form of a narrative.
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who has done a number of transformative recordings by artists over the years. The backup band here includes Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Dennis Crouch on bass and Mike Compton on mandolin. Making frequent guest appearances doing backing vocals is Jim Lauderdale, a singer-songwriter who lately has been gravitating toward bluegrass. Emmylou Harris also makes a guest appearance on one of the songs.
The bluegrass setting suits Costello well, though he has shown himself to be quite versatile holding his own in almost any musical bridge he has crossed. His lyrics are typically intriguing, with clever turns of phrase. Costello provides a line or two in the CD booklet for each song to provide a terse hint as to what it's all about.
Things get under way with a track fairly typical of the CD as a whole, Down Among the Wines and Spirits. Costello's notes say "Former champion prizefighter discovers his name posted just above the liquor licensee." That's the back story, but it's interesting gleaning the other details from the tasteful country-influenced song. <<>>
One of the few tracks with electric guitar is Complicated Shadows. The guy with the plugged-in guitar is producer T-Bone Burnett. The song is also a lyrically intriguing one, with the Old West providing the setting, but its words are presumably metaphorical. <<>>
A highlight of the album is Hidden Shame, which has a bass line that resembles a Johnny Cash tune, and also has lyrics about a character who has tangled with the law. <<>>
In the classic form for a slow, sad country waltz is the song called I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came. It shows Costello has mastered the form. <<>>
Another nicely-done, sad song, this one written from a woman's perspective, is I Dreamed of My Old Lover. <<>>
Elvis Costello's vocals sound more like his familiar old rocking self on a track called My All Time Doll, though the instrumentation takes a turn toward the nostalgic including an accordion. <<>>
The track with the guest appearance by Emmylou Harris is The Cooked Line a song co-written with producer T-Bone Burnett. The somewhat subtle love song shows a little Cajun influence. <<>>
The CD ends with its only cover song, Changing Partners a classic-style country waltz, which Costello and his band seem to relish, playing with just the right blend of sentimentality without crossing the line to cornball. <<>>
Elvis Costello's new 35th or so album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is another fine recording from one of the most prolific and multifaceted performers to have emerged during the 1970s. After doing everything from punk to opera, Costello went to Nashville for a country-bluegrass project with some of the top studio musicians there, combining their classy musicianship with Costello's always engaging, literate lyric writing, and familiar vocals. He seems to be enjoying himself a lot, and the session sounds relaxed with evidence that many of the tracks were recorded live with minimal overdubbing.
Our grade for sound quality is a B. Despite the acoustic instrumentation, the recording still sometimes has an electric quality to it, with some studio effects on the vocal. The loud, compressed sound that doesn't fit the drum-less instrumentation.
With such a long and highly varied career as Elvis Costello's, it's hard to rank where a given recording is in his body of work. But Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is one of Costello's best and most engaging CDs is quite a few years.
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