Saturday, February 5, 2011

Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane

Rating: B

If you're a music fan, unless you have unlimited time and money, you're going to have some blind spots: acts, artists, or bands that you know you should know better. Maybe you've heard of them but haven't heard them. Maybe you know they're a style you like but you don't own any of their albums. Maybe you have an album but haven't really listened to it or haven't seen them live. Elvis Costello is definitely one of those artists for me. An erudite singer-songwriter who spans genres and decades? Why don't I have any of his CDs again? When I found out he made a bluegrass record, Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, it seemed like a great opportunity to get into his music.

I was misinformed, because Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane is not a bluegrass album.  The instrumentation has a bluegrass aesthetic, as he's backed by staple instruments mandolin and fiddle, but the feel of the music is much swingier.  A lot of that is the vocal delivery; most bluegrass singers play things pretty straight, but Costello has a crooner vibe to him throughout the album; listen to "My All-Time Doll," it sounds like a tune one would hear at a smoky jazz club, not a hoe-down.  This isn't bad, and it's definitely better than Costello trying to be something he isn't.

The strongest track on the album is a lovely cover of "Changing Partners."  It's a cover of a tune Patty Page made famous, and Costello treats it right, not making it maudlin nor ironic.  The problem is: if Costello is a great song-writer, shouldn't the standout tunes be his own?  That's not to say the rest of the disc is crap; it's fine, just unremarkable.  The strongest Costello-penned tune is the clever "From Sulphur to Sugarcane," which features a delightful bridge consisting rhyming names of places with comments on how ladies from said places are easy to sleep with.  It's quite witty; on the other hand, it's not touching on any Truths with a capital T.

This is a decent album but not a great one.  I suspect if I pursue further Elvis Costello recordings, I will find some which show him closer to the height of his powers.  This probably has more to offer to seasoned Costello fans ("Cool, he's doing Americana!") than to the uninitiated.

Elvis Costello official site

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