ALBUM REVIEW: ‘National Ransom’ — Elvis Costello (HRM/Concord Music Group)

Elvis Costello teams once again with producer T-Bone Burnett. But it's not all boring Americana product.

Just the mention of some people makes this music fan’s ears glaze over like a stream on a November morning. Like T-Bone Burnett.

These days, “Produced by T-Bone Burnett” is often shorthand for “OK, this is gonna a boring Americana album — a collection of songs done in a scholarly and contrived hybrid of rock, country, folk and blues that’s geared to NPR-demographic yuppies who’ve forgotten how to rock in their middle ages. And certain critics will bleat on about how it’s another masterpiece and then life will go on another day.”

Yes, I know — he co-wrote the Oscar-winning “The Weary Kind” with Ryan Bingham for “Crazy Heart.” He’s also been on the board for several albums I hold in high regard: Roy Orbison’s “Mystery Girl” and “Black and White Night Live,” Marshall Crenshaw’s “Downtown,” Los Lobos’ “How Will the Wolf Survive?” and his first Elvis Costello album, “King of America.”But all those albums were from the mid-to-late ’80s.

And I realize he’s in demand now — just this year, he did the new discs by Elton John & Leon Russell, The Secret Sisters, Bingham, John Mellencamp, Robert Randolph, Willie Nelson and Jakob Dylan, with Steve Earle and Gregg Allman on deck for next year.

But still, those four words …

And they’re found on the back of Costello’s latest album, “National Ransom,” the way they were on last year’s “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.”

Well, I let the stream thaw enough to let the album go around several times and then some. Costello may be pop music’s man for all seasons, but his recordings, like Neil Young’s (and there’s a review of his new one coming), are a crapshoot, and you never know whether you’re gonna get the good Costello, the bad Costello or the mediocre Costello.

Well, some of it’s the good Costello, some is the mediocre Costello. Not terrible, though. Not masterpiece material, but not bad. Or is that damning with faint praise, she asks semi-knowingly?

Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, though there is a natural sameness that develops in a relationship that spans a quarter-century. Likewise, musicians sometimes find themselves a comfortable groove, as Elvis has in recent years, and just settle in. To that effect, there’s maybe one song here that makes this longtime Costello fan perk up and go “Wow!” But there’s enough here to like, or at least appreciate.

He uses the current economic troubles as the album’s springboard — “1929 to the present day,” as written (in very tiny, economical print) in the lyrics to the title song. It’s a punchy, poppy, tense tune — with Marc Ribot’s electric guitar elbowing for space with Jerry Douglas’ lap steel, and the atmosphere heightened by Steve Nieve’s Vox Continental organ. It’s a herky-jerky rip through a frenzied time where “They’re running wild/Just like some childish tantrum/Meanwhile we’re working every day/Paying off the National Ransom.” He gets abstractly verbose in that Costello way that’s alternately fascinating and annoying, but, as in a couple other spots on the disc, you at least to get to dance through it.

The album then stylistically scatters “pell-mell and harum scarum”:  the “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” feel of “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” and the lazy 30s jazz/swing, acoustic guitar-and-strings flavorings of “A Voice in the Dark” and “A Slow Drag With Josephine”; the trad country-meets-backbeat of the upbeat “I Lost You” (co-written with Jim Lauderdale); the Brechtian melodrama with steel and strings of “Church Underground”; the gentle, sweet lament of the dead in the string-and-harp ballad “You Hung the Moon.”

And there’s the album’s rock’n’roll gem, “The Spell That You Cast.” Its 2 1/2 minutes come as close as this album gets to a “Wow!’ moment: A snappy, pounding twist rhythm, a neat pop hook, a big, dynamic sound that conjures early-to-mid-’80s Joe Jackson, a meaty electric guitar with a touch of Keith Richards, a couple well-placed bars of boogie-woogie piano  — and Nieve’s organ conjuring, of all things, ’60s bubblegum (think The 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Simon Says”). And Costello sounding the most impassioned I’ve heard him in some time.

Yet, there’s also a mediocrity that I don’t know whether to pin on the artist, the producer or both. “Stations of the Cross,” with its brush snare drum backbone, makes Katrina sound tedious when, as both history and the lyrics reflect, it was a terrifying experience. Or the slow-death waltz of “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving,” again with the damned snare brush. Or the sound of “One Bell Ringing,” which in this case translates into languishing acoustic guitar with occasional hints of trumpet, clarinet and guitar fuzz. Or the six minutes’ worth of tedium called “All These Strangers.”

Maybe it’s what we can expect from Costello from here on in (and I realize using the words “Costello” and “expect” in the same sentence can be a risky thing) — some really shiny Easter eggs hidden among the well-manicured grass of musical suburbia. Anyway, I’m glad I parted my instinctive glaze and let the album sink in, even if it took a couple weeks.

If you have or know of an album you think is worth reviewing, email me at franoramaworld@gmail.com. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.

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One Response to “ALBUM REVIEW: ‘National Ransom’ — Elvis Costello (HRM/Concord Music Group)”

  1. jmucci Says:

    Hey Fran….enjoyed the review…but I noticed a few grammatical errors in it….like this following sentence…

    “And they’re found the back of Costello’s latest album, “National Ransom,” they way they were on last year’s “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.”

    I’m not sure what you are trying to say in the first part of that sentence. I noticed one or 2 other instances of an extra word or missing word in the review.

    Sorry, not trying to be a pain in the neck. LOL…..good review though.

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