Is he slumming? I don’t think so, but so what if he is? He’s Elvis Freakin’ Costello!
So he did it. He head faked us, glancing one direction while heading the opposite one.
Only last month Elvis Costello told UK magazine The Word (probably tied with Mojo for best music monthly, IMHO) that he didn’t need to put out any new recordings for a while, blah blah, back catalogue and all, blah, blah, new father, blah blah, record business is bad right now etc…
All the while he sat on an “instant” album he’d had ready since the middle of February.
Then came the cryptic message on his official website. Something about releasing only a few pressings and leaving one copy each in a variety of music stores around the world, anonymously and supposedly without the stores even knowing they were there. (Wha? How would that work? And would the album be free if it wasn’t technically inventoried by said store? Anyway…)
But here it is now, in wide release on Lost Higwhay, the new Elvis Costello & The Imposters album, Momofuku. Don’t worry parents, the title’s not a rude slur, but a reference to the inventor of Cup Noodle, Momofuku Ando who died last year and to whom Elvis includes a written dedication to a man who “fed those who study” with his instant noodles.
After studying Momofuku for a few days, I find it to be impressive, reassuring and relatively noodle-free in its execution. It’s a confident set that befits a master songwriter who is, by now, a recording veteran who knows that capturing a great album can be a simple as taking good to great songs (check) rehearsing a great band of live musicians in a great sounding room (check) and having good recording engineers and proper microphones (check). If everyone knows what they’re doing – and they do here –just add hot water and the special flavour packets (no that’s the noodles, sorry) and serve.
Caution: the album you are about to enjoy may be hot.
It’s been said elsewhere, since the album came out last week, but this is the most Attractions-like album that the eclectic Mr. Costello has released since Brutal Youth (which actually WAS the Attractions after all). From the opening rumble of the first song “No Hiding Place” (and I listened to it in sequence the first time, in the car, so that may change when it comes on in my iPod listens) EC’s in fine, raspy voice and even his self-described “little hands of concrete” sound nice and gnarly on the dirty Les Paul he brandishes like a rusty sword. I hear shades of Imperial Bedroom, Get Happy and Blood and Chocolate (not as dark and angry though) and at one point the backing vocals end on a “Beatle” chord, a la EC’s work with McCartney himself (“My Brave Face”). Not to get all CSI about it, but I also detect trace elements of Ray Davies in “Mr. Feathers”, which slinks along Kink-ily as though performed by Tom Waits backing band on Rain Dogs.
The Imposters are, of course, the Attractions by any other name. Mainstay Steve Nieve is present and sounding like, well, Steve Nieve. Pete Thomas is here too (with his daughter Tennessee backing him on drums here and there). And Davey Faragher is now fully integrated in the bass role once filled by Bruce Thomas. Add in Faragher’s able vocal harmonies and we miss Bruce less and less. Speaking of vocals, there’s Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley adding to the chorus of big backing vocals, a welcome sweetening to the spare band arrangements. Costello wrote all of it but he co-wrote some of the lyrics, notably with women. He was assisted by Rosanne Cash with the words to “Song With Rose” and Loretta Lynn on “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name is Eve” both some of the best songs here, and both would have been welcome on King of America, although I reckon T-Bone Burnett would have gotten them sounding rootsier.
“American Gangster Time”, and “Drum and Bone” sound first take-ish, but like I said, these musicians are so well seasoned and in-the-pocket that this ain’t no demo session. I like the way he managed to digest a lot of his recent stylistic side-trips into the new songs. “Flutter and Wow” has more than one Burt Bacharach chord in the vocal harmonies, and of course Steve Nieve’s jazz inflected keys, which live up to the name, “grand” piano.
Finally, the liner notes end with “For M, D, & F”, presumably in reference to his three sons, Matt and his newer twins with Diana Krall, Dexter and Frank who inspire one of Momofuku’s most touching ballads, “My Three Sons”
This open apology for his “absent father” years and his declared rededication to raising his new boys lets us know that this year’s model, despite the familiar rumble of old Elvis and the flashback crackle of the Attractions sound, is not just slumming or trying to recreate his glory days. He is a mature musician and frankly the best rock songwriter alive in the here and now. Frankly, even if he was merely doing an imitation of his former sound, who gives a toss? His aim is still true, and he and the Imposters can still pump it up like nobody’s business!
Elvis Costello: Sorry Dylan fans, I’m voting Costello!