Perhaps I am one of few people on earth that can honestly state they have been a long-time fan of both Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. (Editor’s note: count me as another one). While on the surface the two might not seem to have much in common musically (or any other way for that matter), they have both proven themselves to be consummate pop songwriters. Costello, while better known for his biting bitter lyrics, always grounded his songs with precise pop melodies. Bacharach has consistently created daring pop melodies that broke the conventions of verse/chorus/bridge rules and challenged and invigorated the discerning listener. All of this is by way of saying that their recent collaboration Painted from Memory was a bit of a disappointment. The main problem was Costello’s voice seemed better suited to bashing out two-minute songs of anger and frustration than to wrapping itself around the delicate and complex compositions of Painted. Bill Frisell’s The Sweetest Punch (Songs of Costello) enters the picture as the alternative version of the Costello/Bacharach collaboration and on that front it is a resounding success.
Frisell is a jazz guitarist known for covering material ranging from John Philip Sousa to a number of contemporary pop artists. He arranged and recorded this CD virtually at the same time as Bacharach recorded Painted working from piano-vocal demos. The result is a record that reveals the melodic complexity and beauty that is often obscured by Costello’s strained singing. Costello does contribute vocals on “Toledo” and with Cassandra Wilson on a playful reworking of “I Still Have That Other Girl.” His vocal efforts here sound more relaxed and superior to his work on Painted, but the strength of the album is in the instrumentals. While it would be stretching to call this jazz, the arrangements definitely let the musicians stretch out and explore the boundaries of the melodies and create a beautiful sound tapestry that was merely hinted at in Bacharach’s pop-oriented production.
It seems odd to recommend an obscure jazz guitarist’s album of these songs over the one created by the songwriters, but in this case it makes sense. Despite their mutual musical affection the styles of Bacharach and Costello never really merged on Painted from Memory. Frisell’s reinterpretation of these songs bridges those stylistic gaps and allows the listener to appreciate the beauty of Bacharach and Costello’s arresting melodies.