Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

A pensive Elvis Costello (Universal Canada)
A pensive Elvis Costello (Universal Canada)

Music

Disc of the week: Elvis Costello's short stories about big ideas Add to ...

National Ransom Elvis Costello ( Concord/ Universal)

Elvis Costello, with the help of producer T Bone Burnett, guitarists Marc Ribot, Jerry Douglas, Buddy Miller and members of the Imposters and Sugarcanes, has made another fine record - his best in years, according to Costello himself, who is smart and often right.

More Related to this Story

Costello's last effort was 2009's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, a bluegrassed and darkly-themed song cycle also produced by Burnett. Momfuku (2008) came two years after The River in Reverse, a post-Katrina collaboration with Allen Toussaint that came with this title-track stinger: "So count your blessings when they ask permission, to govern with money and superstition/ They tell you it's all for your own protection, 'til you fear your own reflection."

The more things stay the same, the more things stay the same. "Woe betide all this hocus-pocus; they're running us ragged at their first attempt," Costello scorches on National Ransom, the disc-opening rocker. "Around the time the killing stopped on Wall Street, you couldn't hold me baby with anything but contempt."

Costello, unlike fear-mongers and piggy bankers, doesn't hold us ransom. But he does hold our attention. And if his albums of jazz and classical music this decade aren't to everyone's taste, all Costello's adventures should be approved on some level, as they represent the pursuits of an interested man.

Which bring us to National Ransom, a mind-grabbing 60-minute experience. What we have here is a cleverly musical book of short stories, carried by big-brained lyrics, unusually detailed scenes, mix-and-match combos, deft arrangements, era-specific settings and styles, and characters who lament and lose.

Jimmie Standing in the Rain, something right out a 1930s English music hall, refers to a career-challenged cowboy singer. If the sky unloads on our stand-in Jimmie Rodgers - an imitator who sings "counterfeited prairie lullabies" - the water damage of the piano-jazzed Stations of the Cross is outright catastrophic, with Costello's peculiar vocal emoting having to with water that "came up to the eaves."

On the jaunty A Slow Drag with Josephine, Costello finger-picks with a 1937 Gibson L-OO, an instrument, according to Costello, which has its "very own confidential voice." The same guitar is employed on Bullets for the Newborn King, an unusually gentle tune about cold-blooded espionage and a regretful female double-agent.

Some of the record was recorded at Nashville's Sound Emporium, where legendary Do Right Woman songwriter Dan Penn reportedly popped in for visit. He may have heard the country soul of Costello's That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving. If so, you'd have to think he'd have approved.

OTHER NEW RELEASES THIS WEEK

Speak Now Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2 STARS

According to the hype, this is Swift's coming-of-age album, in which she swaps the aspirational romance of Our Song for the unapologetic cattiness of Dear John. But it's also her claiming-the-stage album, as the biggest star in country music aims to become the biggest star in music, period. Trouble is, as she trades fiddles and pedal steel for big drums and crunchy guitars, a well-polished sameness creeps in. It hardly matters whether the subject is romance ( Sparks Fly), rivals ( Better Than Revenge) or regret ( Mine) - every song is built around quiet verses with well-harmonized refrains, and decked out with layered guitars and hokey stop-time rhythm arrangements. And when there's nothing special about her sound, it's much harder to care about her songs. J.D. Considine

Tracing Light Laila Biali (Independent)

3 STARS

Biali is accomplished enough as both singer and pianist to handle anything from jazz standards to avant-rock, and her fourth album runs the gamut. What's striking is the ease with which the pieces come together. Some of the credit lies with her capable sidemen, particularly bassist/producer George Koller and guitarist Rob Piltch, but mostly it's a matter of having the right approach and the right tunes. So The Best Is Yet to Come is as lithe and swinging as her phrasing; Nature Boy is deliciously otherworldly; k.d. lang's Simple shows off the lustre of her tone; and Human Condition reminds us that she doesn't need to sing at all. J.D. Considine

Olympia Bryan Ferry (Virgin / EMI)

2.5 STARS

"Every night I run around with every girl in town," sings Bryan Ferry, with no hint of overstatement. His latest solo album is a lavish affair from every point of view, from the luxuriant production to the mile-long guest list (which includes Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, all of Ferry's colleagues from Roxy Music, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and the electroduo Groove Armada). At 65, Ferry is still looking for the perfect moment with the perfect girl, symbolized by the cover closeup of an icy Kate Moss sprawled on white satin. The eight new songs brood over a night world of undercover liaisons and disappointments, with smooth stylistic amalgams of rock, soul and dance music, and arty references to Anthony Powell and Jean-Luc Godard. There's some good material here, but overall it feels as if Ferry's anxiety to produce the perfect track has taken the steam out of nearly everyone's individual efforts. Robert Everett-Green

Follow on Twitter: @BWheelerglobe

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular