The new Rhino bonus discs: my review
(posted to the Costello-L mailing list, July 14, 2004)

First, a SPOILER WARNING. If you're concerned about reading too much about the new bonus discs before you hear them, you may not want to read this message.

I'll try not to gush so much that I create expectations that the bonus discs can't possibly match. I'm a big fan of this reissue program, and I think these are extremely worthy entries in the series.

The US release date for all three is August 3. The UK dates are July 26 for ALMOST BLUE and GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD and August 2 for KOJAK VARIETY.

The ALMOST BLUE bonus disc opens on an odd note with two songs which have Elvis limited to a supporting role: "Stranger in the House" with George Jones and the previously unheard "We Oughta Be Ashamed" with Johnny Cash. The latter isn't quite the back-and-forth duet I expected, as the spotlight is very much on Cash with Elvis joining in on the chorus and singing just one line on his own. It sounds a bit out of place on an Elvis Costello album, but it's an enjoyable if unremarkable performance. As a fan of both Costello and Cash, I'm thrilled to hear it at last.

The pace picks up with seven songs from the 1979 show at the Palomino club. For me this is the highlight of the disc. Aside from the familiar version of "Psycho," there's "Radio Sweetheart" (a rare band performance, sounding great), "Stranger in the House" (when I first saw the track listing, I thought it would be awfully repetitive having this so soon after the George Jones version, but they really don't sound much alike), "If I Could Put Them All Together (I'd Have You)" (the weakest song in the set, but still interesting), "Motel Matches" (I knew from bootlegs that this had significantly different lyrics, but now I can actually make them out!), "He'll Have To Go" (excellent), and "Girls Talk" (a unique country arrangement).

Then we get "Too Far Gone" and "He's Got You" from Elvis' "trial session" in Nashville prior to the start of the ALMOST BLUE sessions. These are nice although not too different from the versions we've heard before. If you're wondering, "He's Got You" is not the same version as on the bootleg NASHVILLE AND MORE, but it's the same basic arrangement.

Next up are the 11 outtakes from the main album sessions. Only three of these are previously unreleased, and even they have been previously bootlegged. That said, the upgrade in sound quality is significant (and Rhino restores the full endings which faded out on the bootleg), and "I'll Take Care of You" in particular is a welcome addition to the Costello catalog. There are no real surprises here for hardcore fans, but it is nevertheless a fine assembly of what was already out there but spread over various releases. Thankfully, Rhino uses the correct single versions of "Wondering" and "Cry, Cry, Cry," which have never been available on CD before.

A live "Brand New Heartache" is the disc's final surprise. It's not bad, but it's not quite as good as the previously available live tracks which follow. Rhino has obviously returned to the original tape for the Aberdeen tracks, because they're slightly more complete than what we've heard before.

GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD gets off to a slightly weak start with a studio alternate of "The Only Flame In Town." This is basically a band arrangement of the ballad version, and it's a little too repetitive to hold my interest, with an especially repetitive keyboard part which borders on annoying. I'm curious to find out if other people will like this any better than I do.

"Young Boy Blues," on the other hand, is a fine studio outtake. This is inexplicably labeled a "demo," but it is a fully realized band performance with a great vocal.

After a few previously available tracks (including the CD debut of "Tomorrow's (Just Another Day)"), we get a set of five studio demos. All but one are straightforward guitar-and-vocal performances. The exception is "I Wanna Be Loved," which has sloppy piano accompaniment instead. Both it and especially "The Great Unknown" nicely present these GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD tracks in stripped-down form which emphasize the lyrics. "Turning The Town Red" is wildly different from the familiar version in terms of both lyrics and melody. (This is also how the song was played in concert in late 1983.) "Peace In Our Time," which had a fairly light production touch on the album, doesn't sound too different in demo form. The cover of John Hiatt's "She Loves The Jerk" is pretty good, but I'm still wondering what possessed EC to record it in the first place.

After "Withered and Died," we get seven demos which EC presumably recorded at home. These sound similar to the home demos on the PUNCH THE CLOCK bonus disc, although there are fewer overdubs on the new ones. Most are just guitar-and-vocal, but "The Comedians" adds a piano overdub and "Inch By Inch" has multi-tracked vocals. Those two and "Joe Porterhouse" present the songs without the cluttered production of the album, and they sound terrific. "The Town Where Time Stood Still" is nice but not significantly different from the previous versions (which makes me wonder why he bothered to record it again). [CORRECTION: In fact, there is a significant difference which I missed at first. The song has been condensed significantly, with entire verses deleted.] The two "new" songs, "Mystery Voice" and "Blue Murder On Union Avenue" are made up largely from elements of familiar songs. "Blue Murder On Union Avenue" is essentially an early version of "Worthless Thing" with a different chorus and some different lyrics. "Mystery Voice" developed into two different songs on GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD. I won't reveal which ones.

The previously unreleased live renditions of "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend" and "Love Field" toward the end are fine additions, but mostly they make me wish EC would release a complete show from the 1984 solo tour.

KOJAK VARIETY is unique among the Rhino bonus discs in that it can really stand entirely on its own, bearing little more than a thematic connection to the album it accompanies. Like the original album, it consists entirely of covers, but only one song comes from the KOJAK sessions, and only one other is an alternate of a KOJAK track. This may be the bonus disc which is most appealing to Costello fans who don't share my fascination with the alternates which tend to dominate the other bonus discs.

The 10 George Jones demos -- seven of them entirely unreleased -- are simply wonderful. Although they're not overly polished, they sound more complete than EC's demos ordinarily sound. They capture EC's voice at an interesting point, immediately after recording THE JULIET LETTERS, when he seems to have an extra confidence in his voice, and yet he sings without any apparent effort to show off. In particular he holds the notes longer than usual, and he does it without his trademark vibrato. This is presumably meant as an imitation of Jones' style, but the resemblance is fairly subtle. I doubt anyone would pick up on it without knowing the back story, because they work as Elvis Costello songs.

My favorite is "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," but I wouldn't be surprised if I had a different favorite tomorrow, because they all sound good to me. Even the most familiar song, "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man," differs more from EC's other versions than you'd probably expect. Several songs feature great multi-tracked harmonies.

The other half of the disc is devoted to previously available non-LP covers. I like having these all gathered together, and they're nicely sequenced, but I'm not going to review them track by track.

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