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Useless Elvis

CD cover

On his newest album, Elvis Costello forgets to rock

By Nicky Baxter

WHAT a great title. What a great letdown. Elvis Costello wants to be taken seriously as a singer as opposed to a musician, but on his latest album, All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros.), full of ballads and almost entirely devoid of balls-out rock, he misses his goal.

Costello has let his admirable but ultimately unsuccessful association a while back with the Euro-classical Brodsky Quartet go to his head. Indeed, the Quartet has been invited back again, ostensibly to show off Elvis' high culture, which is rather a regrettable turn of events.

Don't get me wrong, Costello still produces some great vocal noise; no one in rock spews venom better. Costello has always evidenced a marked predilection for the arsenic-and-old-lace approach, and in the main, the singer/songwriter/guitarist is at the top of his game when he's stark raving mad at the world. Equally significant to his success has been the sinewy elasticity of soundscape against which this Irishman with an attitude blows his top.

Notwithstanding the occasional collaborations he's had with the likes of T-Bone Burnett, to these ears, the Attractions (keyboard wizard Steve Nieve; drummer Pete Thomas; and bassist Bruce Thomas [no relation]) have supplied the most sympathetic accompaniment. Here, the Attractions are present but only nominally accounted for most of the time.

Take the first cut, "The Other End of the Telescope." While Elvis displays the vocal agility he's acquired over the last few years, the song itself suffers from too much restraint on the musical end. Nieve's piano and organ are florid but essentially lifeless. The other two Attractions are useless; defanged and faceless, they could be L.A. session men punching the clock.

Similarly, on the title track, Costello and company confuse artifice with artfulness. Again, Nieve's piano offers little more than elegant, sweet little nothings. (Hey! Elvis! Is your guitar in the pawnshop?) Meanwhile, Costello's wails of woe are as efficient as a bottle of sleeping pills.

It's nearly halftime before This Useless Beauty snaps to. Pressed into lifelike action by Rolling Stonesy guitar and bass, "Complicated Shadows" roils with palpable ominousness. Here, Costello switches from high to low culture. He sounds more like a skulking street-corner thug than an opera man. (Interestingly, the song's melodic line and vocals are more than vaguely reminiscent of "Put You Down," the opening track from Alejandro Escovedo's With These Hands.) But the tune's punkish vitality merely underscores its exceptional status here.

For most of us, maturity inevitably raises its spiky head, and you learn (forcibly or otherwise) to become "reasonable," even "practical." At that point, discretion supplants passion--welcome to the working week and all that. Obviously, you can't scream till you're beet-faced forever; nor is an electric guitar cranked to "10" always the prescription for what's ailing us. But, hey, it's always worked for me.

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro

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