All This Useless Beauty
Warner Bros. Records
Deep Dead Blue
Elvis Costello/Bill Frisell
Warner Bros. Records/Nonesuch
Warner Bros. has no intention of releasing the Costello/Frisell collaboration in the States, though it has landed over here as an overpriced import worth its price. Recorded in front of a reverent audience, the album is an accidental masterpiece: E.C. becomes the crooner he imagines himself to be, liberated from the band and sharp wit upon which he has always felt compelled to impale himself.
He doesn't sneer or whine, doesn't do anything more than sing for the first time in years--and when he puts his mind to it, E.C. can turn a lyric into liquid. Frisell fills in the gaps with a haunting guitar sound fragile enough to break under the weight of dust, and Elvis makes like Sinatra whether he's doing Charlie Mingus ("Weird Nightmare") or Lerner and Lowe ("Gigi") or reinterpreting such lost classics as "Poor Napoleon" and "Love Field."
Appropriately enough for a man who embraces irony, the "real" record is the throwaway: All This Useless Beauty is the kind of product Elvis C. can make in his sleep, and the kind to which his fans fall asleep halfway through. It offers nothing new, especially since its offerings are quite old--songs he wrote for other people then felt compelled to reclaim when the well ran dry. When the most commanding songs clock in at less than three minutes, you know the old man's starting to run out of breath.
The earliest stuff is essential, the rest is forgettable--which is why I don't know anyone who owns a copy of Psychoderelict. Even then, Townshend left off the best for this alleged best-of--"Jules and Jim" and "My Baby Gives it Away"--but such are the arguments of devotees, and there are few of us left. Besides, never let a musician judge his own work lest you wind up with an album that reminds you rock genius ages like milk.
From the first three solo records: "Rough Boys" maintains its hard-on, "Let My Love Open the Door" still reverberates with a universal truth, "Misunderstood" and "Street in the City" will send you looking for Rough Mix in its uncut form, and "Pure and Easy" was always suited for Pete T.'s melancholy voice instead of Roger D.'s arena howl. From All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes on: Don't get fooled again.