Elvis Costello and the Attractions
All This Useless Beauty
(Warner Bros.)

In his sleeve notes for this year's Goodbye Cruel World reissue, Elvis Costello congratulated us for purchasing his worst album ever. He was good to his word--until recently, that messy aberration was the substandard bearer for Costello's extensive body of work. But now we have this smug, overwrought jumble. Like Goodbye, Costello's new recording succeeds only in squandering the considerable talents of the greatest backing band ever kept on retainer, the fiery Attractions. Elvis' favorite studio hacks could've sleepwalked through the listless tracks here and it wouldn't have made a dot of difference. Songs don't fade out on Beauty so much as they collapse from collective lethargy.

Long before the Silverchair lads were even born, Costello burst on the pop scene like a COD letter bomb, promising he'd kill himself before witnessing his artistic decline. But somewhere along the way, he succumbed to the conceited elitism he once lambasted Yes and ELP for exhibiting. At their most impenetrable, early Elvis songs seemed like mischievous riddles. But for some time now, Costello has seemed far too enamored of his own vocabulary to give the common bloke anything to hang his own feelings on.

Listening to All This Useless Beauty, one gets the feeling Costello swallowed a thesaurus. The opening track alone catalogues a telescope, a bamboo needle and a shellac of Chopin into some abstraction of human emotion. It's as if he's following a recipe for commercial suicide, opening his album with a trio of dreary dirges, the worst of which sounds like a commercial for a cold-capsule medicine ("Little Atoms").

Fortunately, Costello is too savvy to turn in a thoroughly "useless" album. "Distorted Angel," a track originally intended for his group's excellent 1994 reunion album Brutal Youth, sounds like it can stand with Costello and the Attractions' best work. Ditto for "You Bowed Down," the "Turn, Turn, Turn"-inspired track originally written by Roger McGuinn. But the highlights here are fewer than any album bearing Costello's name since Clambake.

"I've given you the awful truth, now give me my rest," Costello whimpers on Beauty's somber finale, "I Want to Vanish." After suffering this disappointment of an album, you almost feel compelled to introduce Costello to David Copperfield and grant that fondest wish. Poof! Begone, most clever song scribe!

--Serene Dominic

Patsy Cline
The Birth of a Star
(Razor and Tie)

Imagine doing some dreary housecleaning and stumbling across long-lost tapes of Patsy Cline's earliest TV appearances-- 1957 and '58 spots on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, a precursor to Star Search. Believed destroyed in a flood, these archival recordings were recently uncovered in the attic of Cline's old Memphis home by its current occupants. The Birth of a Star features 17 live cuts, including such Cline classics as "Don't Ever Leave Me Again" and her rendition of "Down by the Riverside." But the revelatory surprise here isn't that Patsy had that indefinable something even when she was a nobody. Rather, it's Cline's between-song patter with Talent Scouts host Arthur Godfrey that's the real draw, helping to humanize a legendary singer who's been a ghost to pop listeners for decades.

Hear how genuinely humbled Cline is by the audience's thunderous applause on her very first Godfrey show appearance, and how grateful she is when he predicts her rendition of "Walkin' After Midnight" will catapult her to stardom. It's quite a refreshing change from most singers today, who seem to look at every juncture of their careers as a series of steps leading to world domination. Who knows what Cline thought country-music stardom would bring her? Gold records? A fur coat? A house with an attic big enough to lose things in? You get the feeling she would've carried on even without the cheap rewards of fame just to sing songs she loved, like "Two Cigarettes in an Ashtray."

As Godfrey put it, "By golly, that gal can make you feel good. She's better than Bufferin!"

--Serene Dominic


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