Elvis Costello – National Ransom (2010)

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This Costello disc followed up the simple, organic country-folk of 2009’s Secret, Profane And Sugarcane. The personnel (the Sugarcanes), including red-hot producer T Bone Burnett, carries over but only a little of the music does. National Ransom, which also includes the Imposters as well as Vince Gill, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell on some tracks, swerves wildly from his vintage new wave Attractions days (“National Ransom”) and Tin Alley pop (“Jimmie Standing In The Rain”) to country (“That’s Not The part Of Him You’re Leaving”) and yes, a little bit of of the gentle string music of Secret (“Dr. Watson, I Presume”). I’m surprised to not find a reggae song on here.

Now, a good many long-established artists have come to Burnett lately for a kickstart to their careers, but Costello’s relationship with him goes way back: the two released a single in 1985 under the Coward Brothers moniker, and Burnett co-produced King Of America the following year. Costello was a T-Bone guy long before it was cool to be a T-bone guy. The stylistic change-ups suggest vanity genre exercises and a lack of focus, but that’s not the case, here. Costello has been a musical chameleon his entire career, and let’s face it, he’s good at it.

With a great producer and great session players, the only remaining ingredient need to make this album a success are the songs themselves. Every one of Costello’s sixteen new songs are winners — every one of them. Some are better than others, naturally, but there’s no filler here, and he remains one of the best pop songwriters of the last 35 years. The best of his songs tend to be the darker ones, like like the gorgeous “Stations Of The Cross” and “Church Underground,” but each track has its own charms and some, like like the Cole Porter-esque “You Hung The Moon,” seem as if they are classic covers you just hadn’t heard before. “My Lovely Jezebel” is a Russell tune that Costello and Burnett provided the lyrics to, but it sounds like a Leon song all the way, with just the smoky honky-tonk blues strut that this cut demands.

This is a Costello record that even those who don’t buy Costello records will want to pick up.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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