Baby, it's them

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach are not such unlikely partners

The same goes for versions of Bacharach's songs covered on the recently released tribute album What the World Needs Now..., featuring Shonen Knife and the Wondermints and so many unknown indie-rockers treating Bacharach's songs as though they were disposable tissues. Bacharach, for his part, doesn't listen to others' interpretations of his music. He is flattered by McCoy Tyner's recent album of his compositions, What the World Needs Now (can you say original?), but uninterested in the idea of actually playing it.

"I just saw the sheet music someone sent me from Australia of 'I Say a Little Prayer' by Diana King [from My Best Friend's Wedding]," Bacharach said in November. "I'm glad the record is a hit, and I was curious about the sheet music. And sure enough, they had changed the piano bar and time signature on the chorus to match with how Diana King does it on the record. If you ask me do I like it better that what I wrote originally, the answer is no--it doesn't make any sense. But it made sense to them.

"It's funny--I can't go in for listening to my material. I have a hard time with it. You know, it's not even that I'm going to feel uncomfortable hearing it. I'm very happy they did it. But maybe it's partially that I don't want to be disappointed. And another part is that I want to think ahead."

Which is probably why, until earlier this year, only a handful of Bacharach's original A&M releases remained in print--the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Casino Royale soundtracks and the horrible, hooked-on-Muzak 1987 Greatest Hits that sounds as though it was recorded in a dentist's waiting room. But within recent months, various labels have reissued most of his older albums, in addition to something titled The Burt Bacharach Songbook. Rykodisc has also just issued the Bacharach's soundtrack to After the Fox, which features Peter Sellers and the Hollies performing the hysterical Bacharach-David-penned title tune.

But more impressive is Rhino Records' The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three-disc boxed set that dates back to 1957's "The Story of My Life," performed by Marty Robbins, and Perry Como's take on "Magic Moments." It's a thrillingly comprehensive compendium of the magic Bacharach and David created together, a collection of songs that span the distance from country ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") to kitsch (the title track to The Blob and What's New Pussycat?) to so much glorious R&B (the Drifters' "Please Stay" and Chuck Jackson's "I Wake Up Crying") to the dozens of pop treasures performed by the likes of Dionne Warwick, Cilla Black, Tom Jones, Jackie DeShannon, Herb Alpert, and Dusty Springfield.

Thankfully, the box excises much of his late-1970s and 1980s detritus, songs written after he and Hal David had an acrimonious split that resulted in a lawsuit long since forgotten. Indeed, Bacharach might well have disappeared during the late 1970s and '80s. Save for a few soundtrack contributions, including "Arthur's Theme," he seemed to stumble along without David. Bacharach's output, once so complex, turned into Muzak; on songs such as "On My Own" and "That's What Friends Are For," the grand orchestras gave way to tinny keyboards, and the depth felt suddenly very shallow, even when his songs were performed by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Luther Vandross. The later compositions contained so much cheese, you could buy them at a deli.

Which is why his collaboration with Costello is so significant. It offers proof that Bacharach is himself no museum exhibit. Even at 70, he is willing to take on a new partner, to trade a little knowledge with the man who once insisted his first album could best be described as being about "politics/philosophy and revenge."

It's too simple to say Costello is Bacharach's new Hal David, just as it was too easy to describe Elvis as this year's John Lennon when he collaborated with Paul McCartney. After all, Costello isn't only a lyricist; he's an obsessive melody writer as well, apt to call Bacharach in the middle of the night with a new bridge or chorus, in addition to a handful of lyrics.

"He's a good risk taker, a serious risk taker," Bacharach says of Costello. "He takes his chances, like with the Brodsky Quartet. He's got a group of hardcore people who are his fans, and they're going to say, 'Damn it, Burt Bacharach? The king of the middle of the road writing with Elvis? But it's an interesting thing...He's a brilliant lyricist--I won't even suggest a word to him, because he's one of the great, great writers--and musically, he brings to certain songs more than others a distinctly Elvis core."

Which is perhaps why Painted From Memory is so often a remarkable record, though now and then it lies in the middle of the road and waits for a truck to run over it. Using "God Give Me Strength" as their departure point, the two men decided to write an entire album of what Costello calls "lost-love songs." But the record's a rather joyous affair as Costello's deep, almost soulful vocals float above Bacharach's sparse, lavish melodies and arrangements. Songs such as "In The Darkest Place," "Toledo," "I Still Have That Other Girl," "The Long Division" (a very Costello title), and "What's Her Name Today?" are very much what you imagine Costello-Bacharach songs to sound like--beautiful, complex, sophisticated, angry, sentimental. It's a mouthful of sugar and salt, what happens when two men out of time connect to make music that pays homage to then while trying to be relevant for now.

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