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V/A - Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello

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Artist: V/A

Album: Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello

Label: Glurp

Review date: Apr. 30, 2003

Diving For Pearls

That Elvis Costello is a fine songwriter is old news, and a covers record surely makes perfect sense in regard to such an esteemed artist. The rock—which, for the sake of this argument, you may want to consider having swallowed alt-country or No Depression, or whatever music it is that indie rockers make when they are playing country—tone of most of this record speaks to Costello’s endurance in the minds young, annoyed songwriters more concerned with the quality of song than with the quantity of buck. One sometimes gets the feeling that mature indie kids will always return to mid-period Costello, which is represented robustly on this record, with eleven of the album’s fifteen songs coming from the period that brought us from Armed Forces to Blood & Chocolate.

It’s a testament to the songwriting craft of Elvis Costello that the tracks on Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello that work best are notable variations on what are, really, perfects pop songs—variations that, considering the broader spectrum of Elvis Costello’s tastes, could very well have been possible from the original writer himself. Country versions of “Indoor Fireworks” by Kev Russell’s Junker, “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” by Hem and “Watch Your Step” by Brenda Kahn are all quite reasonable when considering (at the time of Almost Blue’s 1981 release) a crossover-New Wave musician’s choice to record a country covers record and, thanks to Rykodisc’s (and now Rhino’s) expanded reissue of My Aim Is True, the widespread understanding that Costello has been a fan of country music all along. The listener will also find a pinch of the chaotic subtext underlying the somber Imperial Bedroom (as depicted most overtly in the violent outbursts that bookend “Man Out of Time”), which is rendered tastefully here by Jon Auer (formerly of the Posies) version of that album’s “Beyond Belief.” The overall effect of the best of what Almost You has to offer is a handful of alternate versions of great songs that really could have been totally different great songs under the guidance of Costello. And a few of them are great songs right here.

There are also a couple of tracks on the album that take real chances. “Sleep of the Just,” performed here by The Mendoza Line, is the only cut that steps outside the live performance aspect of guitar/bass/drums/organ (and, in a few noteworthy cases, saw, pedal steel guitar and glockenspiel). It’s the only selection on the album to incorporate sampling and loops (something that even Costello himself has attempted, of late) and it succeeds singularly in its ability to transcend the indie sound of the record as a whole. And taken perhaps a bit too far out of context, Okkervil River’s version of “Riot Act” (rendering the phrase “dum dum insolence” even more appropriate than the original) gives a kind of frustrated slacker reading (a la Sebadoh) of the nearly unbearably-intense original that offers just enough smirk to succeed.

Unavoidably, there are several songs here that so absolutely bear the stamp of Elvis Costello that it’s hard to imagine any mature musician attempting to cover the material under the unavoidable shadow of the writer’s work. Would any kind-hearted aficionado of the New Wave evolution into AOR/Singer Songwriter pop recommend taking on "Indoor Fireworks?" "No Action?" "Alison" (Linda Ronstadt, of course, notwithstanding)? They are all dealt with here. And eventually, as with any covers record in the hands of a fan of the collection’s songwriter, the decent renditions give way to the inadvisable, unbearable and taboo. “Busy Bodies,” delivered here by Fastball, and “Men Called Uncle,” covered by The Deathray Davies, are both so nearly unrecognizable from hypothetical rough outtakes of the originals that their inclusion here seems at best redundant. “No Action” is then stripped nearly completely of its demanding immediacy by the snotty (in the kind of detached snotty-ness of Blink 182, as opposed to the sardonic, cutting snotty-ness of, say, a young Elvis Costello) delivery of Grand Champeen.

One nugget of often-forgotten wisdom that does come out in this record is the complexity and elegance of much of Costello’s lyricism, particularly when the delivery of a given cover is boring. That Elvis Costello has often been an emotive, engaging performer with outstanding abilities to craft melody, it’s not difficult to get trapped in the beauty of his songs without actually making it to the lyrical content. One spin through Tywanna Jo Baskette’s reading of “Just a Memory” should remedy that oversight.

Almost You is a far more straightforward covers record than was Rhino’s 1998 collection Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous: Songs of Elvis Costello, which brought together a number of songs that Costello had written for other people or that had appeared either more popularly or dramatically reworked in the hands of others. Bespoke Songs… was able to bypass many of the pitfalls of the common tribute album as—in that Costello had not recorded many of the songs himself, or at least not nearly the same versions of several of the songs—the ostensibly Costello-enamored listener was not encouraged to compare the non-Costello cover to the Costello original. When dealing with a songwriter and performer of nuance as accomplished as Elvis Costello, this is ultimately the finest way to present a covers record, and a unique show of regard on Rhino’s part to the excellence of Costello’s craft.

But back to this record: it’s a little fun hearing playful, irreverent and unnecessary versions of songs written by a very (even if not currently) vital and relevant artist. Many of the songs found on Almost You deliver a sense of the power of the original, and few reinvigorate the originals with fresh readings. That’s really all you can hope for from a covers record, and this one delivers as much.

By Cory O'Malley

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