Universal Music Enterprises acquired Elvis Costello’s first 11 albums last year (all were originally released on Columbia Records from 1977-1986), and the music conglomerate’s first order of business for 2007 is to reissue the back catalog. Again. This is the third time that these albums have been reissued on CD since 1993, following extensive campaigns by Rykodisc and Rhino. Universal’s reissues are not just redundant, they’re also somewhat surprising—it seemed that Rhino, with its deluxe two-disc editions featuring in-depth liner notes by Costello himself, was to have the final, comprehensive word on the era, at least for the foreseeable future. (Fidelity pundits can argue over which incarnation delivers the best sound, though it’s probably worth noting that Roger Bechirian, who engineered the album’s original sessions, remastered the Ryko editions.) It’s safe to say that these 11 albums, regardless of their copious virtues, are some of the most needlessly reintroduced titles into contemporary circulation.
In order to pique the interest of a new audience discovering Costello for the first time, two new compilations are also hitting shelves alongside the fresh reissues. The first, The Best of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years, has a familiar name; it is the fifth best-of compilation to cover Costello’s Columbia tenure, and its tracklisting is very similar to both 1985’s The Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions and 1994’s The Very Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions. It’s a standard, predictable best-of collection, instinctually favoring the acclaimed first three albums at the expense of more complex, underrated efforts (the phenomenal Get Happy!!, for example, is represented by a meager two tracks, one of which, “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”, is a cover). There are a few minor differences from past single-disc compilations: “The Only Flame in Town” is thankfully absent (Goodbye Cruel World is passed over completely, perhaps deservedly so), and “New Lace Sleeves” replaces “Watch Your Step” as one of Trust‘s representatives. Though The First 10 Years has a largely unimpeachable tracklisting, it’s also quite unimaginative, favoring the same well-known hits that are now radio staples (“Alison”, “Watching the Detectives”, “Radio Radio”, “Everyday I Write the Book”) and essentially conforming to Costello’s pre-packaged public identity.
The rockist compilation Rock and Roll Music, on the other hand, offers a much more exciting overview for impressionable fans-in-waiting. It skips many of those tried-and-true signature songs for more interesting choices, and though an album like Imperial Bedroom is noticeably absent (its psychedelia-tinged pop orchestrations don’t exactly “rock”, unfortunately), still manages to fashion a solid alternative introduction. This Year’s Model and Blood & Chocolate, arguably Costello’s two “loudest” rock records, receive the most nods and comprise roughly half of the disc: the jittery “No Action” and the punishing “Lipstick Vogue”, with its bitter lyrical spits pricking the Attractions’ tightly-wound performances (“Sometimes I feel that love is just a tumor / You’ve got to cut it out” is an early example of Costello’s fetish for barbed metaphors of emotional annihilation); a scorching live version of “You Belong to Me” from the band’s amphetamine fury at Hollywood High; “Uncomplicated”, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”, and the Dylanesque stomper “Tokyo Storm Warning”, Blood & Chocolate‘s three rawest tracks; and an unreleased alternate version of “Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” that boasts a bundle of overdubbed harmonies in the chorus.
Even better is Rock and Roll Music‘s inclusion of many of Costello’s fantastic non-LP tracks. His output in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was prodigious and chameleonic, and as a result, some songs were necessarily consigned as b-sides, EP tracks, and compilation fodder. A surprisingly large number of these tracks find their way on to Rock and Roll Music: “Big Tears”, featuring the Clash’s Mick Jones on guitar and an especially dynamic vocal by Costello; “Clean Money” and “Wednesday Week”, two convulsive tracks with opposite feet in pools of punk and pub rock; the near-anthemic “Tiny Steps”; and the shoulda-been-classic “Girls Talk”, a song Costello unwittingly gave away to Dave Edmunds (he took it to #4 on the UK charts). And although there’s so much more to Costello than his aggressive rock ‘n’ roll tracks, one could do much worse for a starting point than here.
Both compilations reveal an artist clearly outside the comforts of the world’s inner circles, flustered by the prospect of no action and the mechanics of the so-called “mystery dance”, caught in the din of pumped-up idiocy, watching the girls with their fingers left lying in the wedding cake. Much has been made of (and written about) Costello’s gradual transition from tart outsider to elbow-rubbing insider, an evolution associated with growing old and one that’s had an increasingly genteel effect on the music he creates. His frequent excursions into jazz, highbrow pop, and classical music, once side-project indulgences, are now a larger part of a sundry norm, and rowdy rock albums like When I Was Cruel and The Delivery Man pop up on occasion to sate the disgruntled hunger of a sentimental audience. Rock and Roll Music, then, serves as a high-voltage reminder of Costello’s rock-centric past, a riot-ready, tumultuous place far removed from his latter-day Bacharach collaborations, his self-assured elder statesmanship, his ubiquitous presence at award shows and on tribute albums. He had the skinny-tie dynamite of the Attractions, one of the greatest rock rhythm sections, in his hand, and he encouraged the ignition of their short fuse; Steve Nieve’s B-movie Farfisa organ and classically ornate piano, Bruce Thomas’s anxious bass, and Pete Thomas’s drums all lurked like circus thugs in New Wave’s tent. Decades later, the band’s music remains a visceral portrait of instigative rock ‘n’ roll, the sort that’s both fearsome and fearless. It will always feel like outsider music, like young man’s music, no matter how the years conspire to revise it.
The Best of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years
Rock and Roll Music
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