PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

Elvis Costello: Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters [DVD]

Jeremy Estes

After years of collaborations with Burt Bachrach, Anne Sofie-Von Otter, Allen Toussaint and the Brodsky Quartet, maybe Elvis Costello has discovered a new field where it’s not just the grass that’s greener.


Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters

Contributors: Philip King
Label: Wea
US Release Date: 2007-07-02
Amazon
iTunes

I yelled the first time I saw that Elvis Costello Lexus ad on television. Do you know the one I’m talking about? Our man sits in the back seat of the luxury sedan air-conducting a symphony like a teenage band geek. “What?” That’s all I could say: “What?” Then, it was back to my regularly scheduled program.

Since then, that commercial has weighed on my mind. I am typically into all things Elvis. His artistic curiosity spills over into my fandom, making me curious about Charles Mingus, Nick Lowe, Allen Toussaint. And the Brodsky Quartet. I am not interested, however, in owning a Lexus, no matter how good Elvis, his wife Diana Krall, or John Legend says the sound system is.

There are two camps: those who frown on artists or their songs appearing in commercials and those who don’t care. I’ve always been a little of both, with an emphasis more on the former than the latter. With the prevalence of musical of all kinds on TV these days -- from the Who of CSI to the 5678’s of Vonnage -- it suddenly seems as if it’s just something people do as part of the artistic process, which makes it hard for me to feel too angry about.

But with Elvis, it’s different. He seemed above all that. Not above charging $50+ for a concert ticket, but above a commercial. I tried to bite my tongue, but I felt violated, if only because he seemed to have no interest in being a spokesman for anything other than himself. Whatever the reason for his newfound interest in hucksterism is -- he is the father of twin baby boys -- at least “Pump It Up” isn’t hawking Reeboks.

Besides, as an artist who’s almost never taken the easy way to success (without failing; just listen to Goodbye Cruel World), who can blame the man? Releasing an album of music recorded with just his voice and a string quartet, hot on the heels of his best-selling stateside album (Spike), isn’t exactly a one-way ticket to the Top of the Pops. Yet that’s just what Elvis did, and with astonishing results.

As an album, The Juliet Letters is a mostly satisfying song cycle that takes the form of letters -- suicide, “Dear John” -- that loved ones write one another. The idea, as explained by Elvis and the Brodsky Quartet, came from a real life Veronese literature professor who took it upon himself to answer letters addressed to Shakespeare’s Juliet. Each song represents a different form of letter, and each is filled with heartache, hope and humor. This DVD, an identical rerelease of a VHS from 1993, is a staged performance of the bulk of the album, interspersed throughout with interviews with Elvis and the Brodskys. The lone live performance, “Jacksons, Monk and Rowe”, is the film’s highlight, showcasing the dynamics of Elvis’ voice and the pop leanings of the Quartet. Here the group is emotionally unleashed, loose and comfortable.

The rest of the performances feature the singer and players standing in a bare room scattered with flower petals and adorned with the kind of solitary column one finds at Hobby Lobby. Though the songs are all quite nice, the performances do little to rise above their staged nature. This is the real let down of the set. Unlike the live performance, the lip-synced studio performances are watered down, softening the impact of the songs.

The performances, each designed to be a simple music video for the song, are all nearly the same, with only the lighting and the group’s attire (street clothes in one scene, formal wear in the next) changing. Each piece feels like an opportunity wasted. More could have been done to create a larger world for the songs, and their stories, to inhabit.

For his part, Elvis contorts his face into any number of grimaces and whimsical, wide-eyed smiles, but these only calls further attention to the artifice of the performance and, in general, makes him look silly. In fact, this comical emoting seems a likely candidate for the genesis of his “air conducting” seen in the aforementioned Lexus commercial. Here, he looks like he’s singing in front of the bathroom mirror.

The main draw here are the interviews with the performers. These illuminate the history of the project as well as the intensely collaborative nature of the work. Had the album been released today, these interviews would have likely appeared on a DVD accompanying the CD, a sort of primer for fans of either Elvis or the Brodskys who were unsure of what they were getting themselves into. As it is, this DVD is simply a stand alone work that offers an interesting, if nonessential, glimpse into the world of musical hybrids and unlikely collaboration. Casual fans need not apply -- this is for hardcore devotees only. Even so, a complete lack of bonus features makes this purchase only for those looking for a digital upgrade of their old VHS tapes.

Watching this DVD, one can’t help but wonder how an artist of Elvis’ stature goes from completely disregarding the standard commercial demands of pop music to touting the benefits of a car on national television. Luxury cars are symbols of excess, though, and Elvis is no stranger to that. Still, artistic excess -- a chameleon’s repertoire, a penchant for genre hopping and collaboration -- doesn’t equal automotive excess, not matter how good the sound system.

In one of the DVD’s interviews, Elvis balks at the notion that he’s renounced the “cheap excitement” of rock and pop music. He claims to simply have moved on to something else. So perhaps now he’s moved on, as well. After years of pursuing collaborations with Burt Bachrach, Anne Sofie-Von Otter, the Jazz Passengers, the Mingus Big Band, Allen Toussaint and the Brodsky Quartet, maybe Elvis Costello has discovered a new field where it’s not just the grass that’s greener.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.