Elvis Costello Returns with New Classic Andy Langer, music critic for Esquire magazine, discusses the week's album releases, including new records from music heavyweights Elvis Costello and Neil Diamond, as well as Tim Fite and Firewater.
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Elvis Costello Returns with New Classic

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Elvis Costello Returns with New Classic


Music Reviews

Elvis Costello Returns with New Classic

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So there was a time when listening to music meant the one travelling troubadour, or maybe your pop played the fiddle. Later on, it meant radio or the three or four new releases each week that you'd get in the local record shop. But now, it means, according to the latest SoundScan statistics, a million billion records a week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: And since we can't get deep into all the new recordings on New Music Tuesday, let us take a second and briefly sample some of the offerings. Consider it a pu-pu-platter playlist.


Quickly then, to Los Angeles noise rock band No Age, who puts out their debut album "Nouns."

(Soundbite of music)

NO AGE: (Singing) Take on the (unintelligible) Just to see you. My heart's in a (unintelligible), baby, What can I do?

MARTIN: British sleaze-pop merchant Craig David samples David Bowie on "Trust Me."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CRAIG DAVID: (Singing) Get on the floor. No need to hold back. (Unintelligible)

PESCA: Yeah, it worked for Vanilla Ice, and now we have the Long Blondes. They're not Blondie, they're not the 4 Non Blondes, or Concrete Blonde, or Blonde Redhead, or the Von Bondies. They're the Long Blondes, and they have certainly picked a distinctive name. As for their sound, here's a bit from their new album, "Couples."

(Soundbite of music)

THE LONG BLONDES: (Singing) Friend's a genius. She even made up a spell..

PESCA: And putting the pu on our pu-pu platter is Clay Aiken.

(Soundbite of song "On My Way Here")

Mr. CLAY AIKEN: (Singing) I've seen the best, I've seen the worst. I wouldn't change what I've been through.

I touched the sky, I hit the wall, But I did what I had to...

PESCA: And now for the main course, Andy Langer, pop critic from Esquire Magazine, is on the line. Hey, Andy.

MARTIN: Tough to follow.

Mr. ANDY LANGER (Music Critic, Esquire Magazine): What do you guys need me for now? You got those 40-second clips.

MARTIN: Tough to follow Clay Aiken, Andy.

PESCA: We heard the best. We heard the worst.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I don't know, you want to characterize that song? I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: OK. First up, let's talk about Elvis, Elvis Costello. We talked about this record a couple of weeks ago. And I think the timeframe was - a couple of weeks ago Elvis released it on vinyl, but we couldn't play it because the label didn't send it out in advance.

Lost Highway puts out "Momofuku," a good old-fashioned CD. On his website, Costello wrote that, releasing that record on vinyl was, quote, "how it sounds the best, with a needle in a groove the way the Supreme Being intended it to be." By the way, you a vinyl acolyte?

Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, I do like vinyl, but the idea of a vinyl-only release in 2008 is quaint, but not particularly useful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: All right, well, let's see what you have to say about the album. Let's hear a little of Elvis.

(Soundbite of song "No Hiding Place")

Mr. ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) In the night, there is just the future When everything will be free There won't be any huge secrets And a "unintelligible" and a novelty You can't say anything you want to in your fetching cloak Anonymity Are you feeling out of breath now? In your desperate pursuit of infamy. Is...

PESCA: That's the first track on the record, called "No Hiding Place." So, Andy, that vinyl thing is that a gimmick or does this sound really great on vinyl? Does this sound really great anyway?

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, I think it's part gimmick, part sort of the way that this album came together was, you know, Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley invited Elvis down to a session and then he was so inspired that he went and made this record in six days. And I think it's just part of the nobody expected a new Elvis Costello record, so if he puts it out on vinyl two weeks early, who cares?

PESCA: Right.

Mr. LANGER: Because you can pull that stunt when no one's really expecting a new record anyway. The idea that this is sort of just a tossed-off record makes it this rock record that, again, no one expected and it's a really solid, start-to-finish, just quickly blown through rock songs. And it's sort of the Elvis you wish you'd seen in the last, like, 14 or 16 albums...

PESCA: When he was what, trying too hard or putting too much production in, not just letting 'er rip?

Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean he's done everything from jazz to symphonies to real, you know...

PESCA: To Burt Bacharach.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, and this is sort of a classic Elvis Costello record. And if it took Jenny Lewis to inspire him, more power to Jenny Lewis. But this is a serious rock record. The ballads even have some sting to them. He wrote one with Rosanne Cash. He's got another one written with Loretta Lynn. You know, there's folks like Johnathan Rice on the record.

So they're fully-fleshed-out songs and it's a bit sophisticated musically, but it's a rock record. And it's an Elvis Costello rock record that couldn't have come, you know, at a better time. Because look, you've got Robert Plant and Alison Krauss out there. You've got Tom Petty with Mudcrutch, all these guys with sort of late-career revivals that are worthwhile.

PESCA: So you mentioned Rosanne Cash and a bunch of Elvis's favorite friends, do they - is their presence really felt? Or are they just doing brief cameos?

Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, there're brief cameos, but there're sort of gang choruses on a lot of these tunes and there is, you know, a - his band is there, but these other folks are there, you know, either lending a line here or there or a gang chorus. But again, it's a rock record. There's not a lot of, you know, pretty, fancy duets and that's good.

PESCA: Does it compare to "Get Happy," "Armed Forces," the great Costello of the '70s and '80s?

Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, it compares favorably but not, you know - it's not going to be in that class. But for an Elvis Costello record right now, this is the one you want.

PESCA: I like it. We heard...

MARTIN: Can we please move on to my favorite...?

(Soundbite of laughter)


PESCA: Well, we were talking about the, you know, greatest critical darling in rock music, Elvis Costello. Now let's talk about another guy, Neil Diamond. First of all, Andy, could you explain to us why Neil Diamond is experiencing something of a comeback?

Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, you know, Neil Diamond never really went away. And that's, you know, for blessing - for better or worse, that's true. I mean, you know, he - the comeback starts with the Rick Rubin record, I suppose, if there is a comeback. And it's the first Rick Rubin record. There's 12 songs and it's two years ago. And you know, it's Rick Rubin who can retool a career and - you know, basically by just stripping it down and selecting a few songs, he had Neil Diamond write for the last record.

And it was kind of awkward because Neil Diamond never sounded comfortable on that record. But it did sort of bring him to a new audience, and not the new audience that he's found on "American Idol," but a younger audience than perhaps he was used to. And now you've got this new Rick Rubin-produced record - a second one - and it's stripped down, too, like its predecessor.

PESCA: So if Rick Rubin was maybe - it sounds like you heard he was kind of twisting Neil by the ear, saying trust me, and Neil was hesitating, what's their relationship sound like on the songs on this album?

Mr. LANGER: He - much more comfortable. On the other hand, you know, this is a record that is dark and desperate and miserable and not real good and...

PESCA: That's not glittery like a diamond.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Well, let's hear a little of this new album.

Mr. LANGER: Good.

(Soundbite of song "Pretty Amazing Grace")

Mr. NEIL DIAMOND: (Singing) Really amazing grace is what you showed me. Pretty amazing grace is who you are. I was an empty vessel, you filled me up inside And with amazing grace, restored my pride.

Pretty amazing grace is how you saved me. And with amazing grace, reclaimed my heart...

MARTIN: I mean, I'd say just keep playing it on and on, but I know we have to move on.

PESCA: No, no, Rachel...

Mr. LANGER: My heart is an empty vessel and you filled me? Archuleta writes better than that. You've never seen like...

MARTIN: Poetry, pure poetry.

Mr. LANGER: It seems like it would work for Johnny Cash because he has the dark side and Rick Rubin did it with him, but...

MARTIN: Oh, Neil's dark. Mike, he's dark.

PESCA: Well, honestly, Rachel, you're a Neil Diamond fan. Is he still rating seven on most scale of hardness for you?

MARTIN: I have to tell you I really like this album.

PESCA: All right.

MARTIN: I know, I know...

PESCA: Take it from a fan...

Mr. LANGER: The Natalie Maines duet is a must-download.

MARTIN: I like her. Yeah, see? It's dark...

PESCA: The next record is called "Fair Ain't Fair," and it's by Tim Fite. Tim Fite's MySpace page called his - calls his music alternative-slash-country-slash-hip-hop. Is that an inducement to listen, in your opinion, Andy?

Mr. LANGER: It is...


Mr. LANGER: He was originally, well, a Caucasian rapper, and Little T and One Track Mike was his band back in the day, his hip-hop group that actually did OK on Atlantic for about six minutes. And then he's made three solo records. Last year, he made this record, "Over the Counter Culture," which was a hip-hop record, and was sort of this anti-consumerist manifesto that he distributed free online, because you can't really sell an anti-consumerist manifesto...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. LANGER: And this one's less political, more...

PESCA: Sort of steal this album, yeah.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, this one's less political, more introspective, and there are pieces of this that are outright brilliant.

PESCA: All right. Well, maybe this is one of those pieces. It's a song called "Big Mistake."

(Soundbite of song "Big Mistake")

Mr. TIM FITE: (Singing) Tell me a dirty joke and I'll laugh it off lightly. If I tell you a dirty joke, you might not like me. Everyone gets to make one big mistake. And if you're waiting on me, well, I guess you're going to have to wait.

Now, timing is everything...

PESCA: OK, I think I heard a little of the Happy Trail's "Get Along Little Doggie" type of beats in the background. Was that sound a good indication - it didn't sound that country. I heard the electo-blips.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, I mean, it's country in that there's, you know, there's pedal steel on here...

PESCA: Right.

Mr. LANGER: And there's, you know, I mean, it's not a country record by any stretch. It's a singer-songwriter from a guy who, you know, obviously likes Tom Waits, Nick Cave, a little bit of Beck in there. And it's bluesy. It's folksy. It's funky at times. But it's one of those records that just makes you smile. And you know that Tim Fite, whether he's selling a lot of records or not, is going to be around making records for a long time, and that's the impression that this record gives you.

PESCA: How are the lyrics?

Mr. LANGER: The lyrics are great - I mean, that's the thing, he's got this clever phrasing and word play that come from having his foot in hip-hop, but they work within the singer-songwriter context.

PESCA: Sounds like a smart album that's also fun to listen to.

Mr. LANGER: It is.

PESCA: Firewater, "The Golden Hour," our next choice. Firewater is a pseudonym for Todd A, an indie musician who records, I don't know, he does some weird stuff. Why don't you tell me a little bit about Todd A?

Mr. LANGER: Well, he's formerly of Cop Shoot Cop and he went on a three-year sabbatical after Bush was reelected, and went to the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, made a one-hour documentary about his travels that's on this CD as a bonus portion. But he ended up in Pakistan at the Afghan border and was going to cross over, but health issues and a fear of kidnapping kept him from actually...


Mr. LANGER: Going. But he recorded pieces of this in India, in Pakistan, in Israel and it's, quote, "world punk." And it works. You know, this is a record that's built out of a foundation of sort of anti-Bush sentiment, but is witty and smart, and isn't just a whiney protest record.

PESCA: Really? So among some of the best Afghan-Indian-Pakistani-Israel-album-world-punk that you'll get this year?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANGER: Exactly.

PESCA: Top of that list? All right, let's hear a little bit of this song called "This is My Life."

(Soundbite of song "This is My Life")

FIREWATER: (Singing) I'll never care for authority. I've never felt part of the majority.

Well, I lost my home and I lost my wife. This is no joke, Yeah, this is my life.

This is my life...

MARTIN: You dig that?

PESCA: A little growly. Maybe, you know, it's not fair - we're playing 40 seconds. I don't know if there's lyrical brilliance on this record. But is that a fair indication of the sorts of things we'll get from Todd A? Or, as he calls himself now, Firewater?

Mr. LANGER: Yeah. Think "Graceland" meets "American Idiot," and you're sort of halfway there. I mean, it is a protest record, but it's also, what can I do with other folks from other worlds and...?

MARTIN: Building bridges.

Mr. LANGER: Make it work?

PESCA: And the musicians that he used, are they real indigenous musicians of these places? Or were they session musicians who just know how to play different kinds of songs? Do you know?

Mr. LANGER: No, these are the real-deal indigenous people that he went out and sought out along his travels, and so in that sense, it's very authentic. He came back and finished the record. It's not like he made the entire thing there. But he did pick up these little pieces throughout his travels. And you know, in today's world, where you can make a record on your laptop, and you know, never leave whatever room you started it in, at least he did the legwork.

PESCA: Andy Langer, himself a bastion of authenticity and pop music critic for Esquire. Thank you so much, Andy.

Mr. LANGER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks, Andy.

Mr. LANGER: Yup, you got it, thanks.

MARTIN: That does it for this hour of the BPP, but we don't go away online. We are always there are npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Rachel Martin, going to download me some Neil Diamond.

PESCA: It's your fun-eral. I'm Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. I'll stick with Elvis.

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