Elvis Costello's wit and word play have long established him as a preeminent lyricist, but surprisingly no one's attempted to assemble a credible tribute to arguably the greatest songwriter of the last quarter-century until now, leaving his oeuvre mostly as untouched as King Tut's tomb. With Almost You, the new tribute, it becomes even more apparent how durable and resilient Costello's work really is, especially his first six albums (otherwise known as the Sacraments to the egg-headed rock critic). The quality of the source material almost ensures a solid collection, though the album also benefits from a broad survey that samples several lesser-known gems.
Among those taking a crack at interpretation are Fastball, whose hit single "The Way" virtually carbon-copied the "misshapen misanthrope of rock 'n' roll," as Costello was once known. Their take on "Busy Bodies" (from Armed Forces) could stand a Costello outtake for all its derivativeness, but other artists here take songs in new directions. Li'l Cap'n Travis adds pedal steel and glockenspiel to Blood & Chocolate's "Blue Chair," giving it a rich country feel, while Tywanna Jo Baskette's sultry bedroom voice gives the underrated "Just a Memory" a torch quality.
Other highlights: Brenda Kahn's evocative voice rides the powerful bass line to "Watch Your Step," the Posies' Jon Auer's understated "Beyond Belief" accents the song's astounding lyricism ("So in this almost empty gin palace/Through a two-way looking glass/You see your Alice"), and The Mendoza Line's "Sleep of the Just" properly positions the song as one of Costello's best late-career contributions. Thus begins the excavation phase of the former Declan McManus' sainthood. Hopefully, others will continue to dig through his work with the same fervor and attention to artistry.
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