Saturday, August 01, 2009

Kat's Korner: Elvis almost made a great album

Kat: Starbucks is distributing Secret, Profane & Sugarcane so why is it a listen to most of the disc makes me want to reach for a Miller Genuine Draft?

Elvis Costello Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is the new album from Elvis Costello (which he promoted on PBS' NewsHour this week). The sticker on the plastic wrapping explains it was "PRODUCED BY T BONE BURNETT." Producers don't generally get credited on album stickers but Elvis' relationship with Burnett is long standing and includes his producing Costello's King of America and Spike as well as the two co-writing the Academy Award nominated song "The Scarlet Tide" (Cold Mountain). That song wasn't all that great and the mistaken accolades may explain how Elvis got to where he is currently.

Emmylou Harris shows up to offer some harmony vocals on "The Crooked Line," one of thirteen tracks on the album. Thirteen tracks and let me clear that up real quick: 13. Why? If you buy the physical CD (as opposed to downloading), you may flip through the album notes (a gorgeous package including a drawing credited to Tony Millionaire), you'll notice the song writing credits and see "Femme Fatale" credited to Lou Reed. And maybe you saw the Billboard article on this album which stated it would be acoustic and feature "Femme Fatale"?

Well it doesn't. My copy doesn't. Purchased at Starbucks ($12.99) while we were on the road this week speaking about Iraq.

It's not a bonus track. Don't think, "Well after the last song ends, there's probably a pause and then it kicks in!" No, it doesn't.

So what have you got?

A country album, to a degree. "Red Cotton" is the sort of track that doesn't belong. What does it have to do with country music? Not real much. It sounds like a cast off from the film Cold Mountain and, if it was, it should have been left as a cast-off. But it turns out it's a cast-off for an opera Elvis started but never finished (on the life of Hans Christian Andersen for the Royal Danish Opera ). Though that does explain the never-sounds-like country music, it doesn't explain what it's doing on this release. In the end, it destroys the album.

The twelve other songs (eleven of which Costello wrote or co-wrote) succeed. The lead track, "Down Among The Wine And Spirits," probably does more to argue for Elvis' singing abilities than anything since the triple punch of "God Give Me Strength," "Toledo" and "What's Her Name Today?" (1998's Painted From Memory). That's not a minor point as any singer-songwriter knows. The more gifted you are as a writer, the less often your talent as a singer tends to be noted.

Throughout the twelve songs, Elvis explores shifting themes and moods whose only common thread is frequently the acoustic setting of the songs. Take "My All Time Doll" which isn't country music at all, not even with the banjo flourishes at the end of each verse. The song, as is, could have easily graced his nineties classic Brutal Youth.

By contrast, "I Felt The Chill" (which he co-wrote with country music icon Loretta Lynn) is clearly country in delivery, arrangement and every way imaginable.

But I knew that we would go wrong
Just as they do in all those old tragic songs
Did that melody haunt your mind?
Just like a linger of perfume
Now you're in someone else's arms, locked up in another room

That Elvis can handle the above or country music shouldn't be a surprise. The 2001 Rhino reissue of his 1977 debut My Aim Is True featured an acoustic version of "Blame It On Cain" which attested to some interest in and/or natural talent for the genre.

"She Was No Good" demonstrates he doesn't need Lynn or any other co-writer to write authentic country music and lyrics. But then comes "Sulphur to Sugarcane" which he co-wrote with Burnett. I'm more forgiving of this song than some may be. An argument can be made that it and "Red Cotton" seriously detract from the project. I enjoy it because it's a humor song, sung as such and clearly written as such:

You can go west to Texas
Go east to Mississippi
You can run out of money
You can run out of pity
Throw open your purse
Until you're crying for mercy
Go to Alabama
Escape Louisiana

And he's just getting started as he tells you that women in Poughkeepise disrobe "when they're tipsy" and Albany, New York goes wild for "the filthy way I talk," he'd play piano with his toes, to get the women in Bloomington, Indiana to "take their clothes off," etc. Early on the song features a line that should become an instant classic of songwriting: "Now if you catch my eye and you find that it runs down your leg."

It's at moments like those Costello reminds you that he's not just a good songwriter, he's one of the best working today. Which is why "Red Cotton" is so distressing. With two lines in "She Was No Good," he did more to comment on the slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War than he manages in the never-ending "Red Cotton."

"Red Cotton" is an unfocused mess in every way. Musically, it shifts genres repeatedly. Lyrically, when he's name dropping Liverpool and St. George's Hall at one moment and the next, in apparently the same voice, speaking for some American prior to the Civil War, he's all over the map as well. The song's not authentic in any manner and says very little. (Though it does go on and on for nearly six minutes.) It reminds me an awful lot of some of the failed tracks Brian Wilson turned up with when he'd been hailed as a genius once too often. In fact, it may make Wilson and Van Dyke Parks' "Vegetables" appear stately by comparison.

I enjoy "Sulphur To Sugarcane" but understand some may find the humor to be an eye-wink, an attempt to say to the SoHo crowd, "I'm not really into country." And that's another reason that "Red Cotton" is so annoying. It meanders and it never ends and, despite all the lines and lines of lyrics, if there's a point to make, it never manages to reach it. But what it really seems to say is, "This is my anti-slavery song."

I didn't realize that it was a real step out on the limb, in 2009, to be opposed to slavery.

Nor am I aware of what the hell that has to do with country music.

Now were Elvis Costello recording an album of colonial music -- talk about roots rock! -- I could understand the need to explore. But I do find it interesting that he's explored the American landscape repeatedly (not just with "Toledo") but for his country album it is necessary that he note slavery (he does it well in "She Was No Good," lousy in "Red Cotton"). Sting was the teacher from the British punk scene so possibly Elvis isn't up on this but if there were songs that were pro-slavery, they'd probably fall under folk. Slavery has nothing to do with country music other than originating from a nation-state that, long before the genre emerged, was a country that spat on humanity by allowing and encouraging slavery.

T. Bone Burnett is highly overpraised and many in the West Coast music scene consider him a nut -- a religious nut at that -- so possibly it's his nonsense, guidance and encouragement that resulted in "Red Cotton"?

Whatever it is, it robs the power from the project. Elvis Winks And Nods doesn't make for a solid country music album.

Which is too bad because I don't see the usual Costello crowd rushing to this album and, if it weren't trying to assure a segment of non-thinking liberals (not all liberals, just the non-thinkers who are nothing but little bigots), Secret, Profane & Sugarcane could be an amazing country album. It could, in fact, stand with one of the great Johnny Cash albums. But the thing is, Johnny Cash never talked to his audience. And he never recorded country songs and hollered, "Hey, you stuck up Yuppies. I'm one of you!" He just laid it on the line performing songs about universal human emotions that reached and touched so many and, as a result, became a country icon. Loretta Lynn did the same.

"Red Cotton" is cotton soaked in the blood of slavery. I would assume we all grasp that. I would assume most of us grasp that slavery is a stain on the United States to this day. I do not then translate that to a stain on country music -- a genre not even formed when the Civil War ended. I do not then translate that to a stain on a portion of the country today.

But then I'm not an smug 'progressive', mingling amongst my White-White crowd in SoHo doing my BoHo dance and talking about "those people." Whether "those people" are African-Americans or any others, when you start talking "those people," you tend to be flaunting your own bigotry. And Elvis or T Bone or someone knows the drill to appease that crowd, "Record country? Do a song insulting the genre!"

Which is what "Red Cotton" does. I'm really sorry to have to be the one to explain it to British-born Elvis Costello, but, one more time, country music has nothing to do with slavery. And the fact that you'd include this song on the album is really insulting.

I believe the Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is Costello's thirty-sixth album. (That's counting up the albums in my collection. I may have missed one -- I loathed My Flame Burns Blue.) So for thirty-five albums, slavery didn't interest him. Fair enough. He started recording 100 years after the Civil War. But he decides to do his country project and needs to make the 'epic' track, the longest track, one about slavery?

It doesn't go down well. And I'm being really kind here and not bringing up the barroom brawl that everyone else would, the brawl where the faded and untalented female singer who was a White Ikette for a brief moment in time and never really accomplished anything after, slugged Elvis. I'm being really kind and not digging through the particulars of that incident.

But I'll note one more time because apparently I have to: Country music doesn't have a damn thing to do with slavery.

The songs sung -- in the South or the North -- prior to the Civil War would be considered colonial or folk. As Crapapedia notes, "Country music (or country and western) is a blend of popular musical forms originally found in the Southern United States and the Appalachian Mountains. It has roots in traditional folk music, Celtic music, gospel music and old-time music and evolved rapidly in the 1920s."

If you want to talk slavery, I'd assume you'd do it within the rock and roll genre -- a genre Elvis stuck to for most of his career -- since, whether it's Big Mama Thornton or anyone else, the exploitation of the works of African-American was something rock specialized in. Without that exploitation, Eric Clapton wouldn't have a career.

So I do find it insulting that when Elvis does his first country album, he's suddenly got the urge to provide us with a long-winded song about slavery. And I should probably point out, obvious from music reviews here, I don't listen to country a great deal. I'll put on Emmylou or Dolly Parton or Nanci Griffith or Roseanne Cash, I'll dig back for Johnny Cash and some Loretta, if Patsy Cline or George Straight comes on the juke box, I'll enjoy it. But I'm not defending country music in this review because I'm a huge fan. I'm defending it because I think it's being distorted and blamed for things that have nothing to do with it.

So maybe Elvis and/or T Bone missed the history basics and/or don't care or else it was really important to one or both of them that they reassure uninformed SoHo bigots that Elvis may be doing an album for the 'underclass' but, don't worry, he's putting them straight.

That's the take away and that's really sad because this couldn't have been a classic album, for twelve of the tracks, it almost is. Then it gets torn down by pretensions.

Many years ago, Elvis and the Attractions released Almost Blue (1981) which was Elvis and his punk rock band doing covers of vintage country songs. It wasn't a country music album no matter how hard they tried. The band couldn't master it and Elvis' vocals were unsteady. But the album came with a warning sticker alerting that the project might cause "radical reaction in narrow minded people" -- today those same people are perceived by someone (himself? Burnett? both?) to be his base. Which explains how he and Starbucks serve up "Ignorant Beans."

Enjoy the twelve tracks that make it --enjoy them with a Miller longneck -- and hope next time Elvis decides to record, he goes full out and doesn't feel the need to placate a bunch of uninformed snobs who, truth be told, aren't buying his albums anyway (as sales throughout this decade have demonstrated).