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Friday, May 31, 2013

Mark’s Pick of the Week: All This Useless Beauty by Elvis Costello

           Elvis Costello writes pop music.  It’s some of the tightest, heaviest, and genuine pop music you can find, but it’s still pop music.  Therefore, it’s sometimes hard to find friends in the industry when you write popular music that isn’t always extremely popular.  Because of this I feel like he sometimes get overlooked by certain groups that he kind of in between.  As an example what kind of radio station would play him?  He certainly doesn’t belong on one of the oldie stations or one of the “hits of the 80’s 90’s and today stations” where music goes to die.  He’s not quite classic rock or alternative.  So if his music is good (and I’m not the only critic who thinks his stuff is pretty good) who’s there to play it?
If you look at all of Elvis’ albums (about 32 studio albums spanning 33 years) most people will say “Imperial Bedroom” was his best work.  That’s only 5 years into his career, and you do the math.  He has been putting out basically 1 album a year since he got started.  If you just look at those 5 years they are still pretty impressive (“My Aim is True,” and “This Years Model” in particular along with Bedroom,) but chances are if those 5 years were so good then he’s probably got something more to contribute.  This fact is no more evident then in this album.
            This album began as a compilation of songs he wrote with/for other artists, and was going to have a diverse group of musicians an idea he got while he served as curator of the 1995 Meltdown Festival.  By the time the record was ready for recording the idea was scratched and instead The Attractions were brought in for one last time, and we had a mix of original material, tracks previously recorded by other artists, and songs co-written with other artists.
            I think a great place to start on this album is it’s artwork; a wooden bust in front of a dark backdrop.  For the most part the emphasis of these songs are on the piano and vocals.  With such sparse instrumentation you can almost imagine it being recorded in some small dark room with nothing other then a piano and that bust.  Speaking of piano, on this album we have some of the tightest piano parts on any Costello album, which is no small part to the great Stevie Nieve, Elvis’ piano player in both the Attractions and the Imposters.
             Another great part of this album is its consistency.  The 12 tracks and 50 minutes of the album are evenly distributed between slower ballads, and quicker pop tracks as well as tracks that kind of fall In between.  Not only does it offer something for everyone, but also it helps the album flow.  If you like Costello then you will be entertained throughout the length of this album.
            My favorite tracks on this album are the livelier tracks.  Tracks like “Complicated Shadows,” “Starting to Come to Me,” and “Shallow Grave,” a track co-written by Paul McCartney, all are all fantastic examples of Costello’s mastery of the pop song.  The ballads, which are often driven by the piano, gain much from Costello’s ability to construct some fantastic lyrics.  Unlike some of his older works he seems like more of the narrator then the protagonist, which adds a layer of wisdom to his words.
            If you’ve never heard Elvis before then this might not be the best album to start on, if only because his older stuff is, so much more important.  However, you don’t need to be an old fan to enjoy some of these gems from one of the great songwriters of the past 3 decades.

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