All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun
October 14, 2003 Tuesday
SECTION: ARTS & LETTERS; Pg. 16
LENGTH: 1032 words
HEADLINE: Elvis Turns Tourist
BYLINE: By ADAM BAER
In the coolly observant Sofia Coppola film, "Lost in Translation," Bill Murray plays a has-been celebrity trapped in Toyko performing in whiskey ads. Out at a karaoke joint with his newfound friend, Scarlett Johansen, he lip-syncs to the tunes of a back-throated crank crooning about walking through a "wicked world, searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity." A driving drumbeat lays the groundwork for indifferent guitars. And our hero flaunts hipster garb, completely aware of how much funnier he seems illuminated by the cheesy glow of global commercialism.
Unsurprisingly, the ironic voice behind this moody meta-moment is that of Elvis Costello. His 1979 song, "[What's So Funny 'Bout] Peace Love and Understanding" helped establish the brand of sound for which he is rightly renowned: tight, raw, and rhythmic songs of irony made up of simple, arching melodies over traditional progressions. Ever since, his lyrical disillusionment has continued to seduce overeducated dreamers lost in an impersonal world of shlock.
His is an honest, if mildly pretentious, ethos. And yet it obviously wasn't satisfying. Over the last 20 years Mr. Costello (who had no problem commercially mythologizing his alternative identity early on, going from Declan Patrick Aloysius McManus to, well, Elvis) has sampled from the smorgasbord of genre in search of something more so-called meaningful. Here is a respected Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who has both shamelessly and superficially teamed up with the classical Brodsky quartet, Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, the early-music viol ensemble Fretwork, and opera star Anne Sophie von Otter. Can you say chronic status addiction?
Happily, last year's Costello album "When I Was Cruel" was a return to his roots. It showed an Elvis who could actually reimagine the rocker constitution with maturity (something superstars like Paul McCartney haven't been able to accomplish). But this year we are faced with "North," an album of classically orchestrated, quasi-jazz ballads, evidently inspired by Costello's latest love, songstress Diana Krall, and released, strangely enough, on the tony label Deutsche Grammophon (home of the world's best classical musicians).
Elvis, what are we to do with you?
I ask this not as a rock hardliner who feels betrayed by a punk who went bourgeois. I ask it as a music lover with equal respect for the Met Opera, the Cafe Carlyle, the Blue Note, and the old CBGB. Standards, whether classical in nature (Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern), jazzy/modernist (Kurt Weill), or contemporary (Stephen Sondheim) deserve respect. Their delectable turns of melody, placed atop intriguing but palatable harmonic changes, create charged poetic texts that stick in the mind. They don't need smoke and mirrors. They're simple, elevating.
"North," though, only offers a forced, glossy form of standards-tourism. Critics writing otherwise - and there have been a few, mostly in smart-aleck political magazines - either haven't studied truly artful compositions or are in contrarian fevers to simultaneously mythologize a more "evolved" release along with their own reviews of it. Unlike them Mr. Costello is not ill-equipped for such a trip; possessed of all the right tools, he just doesn't quite seem to know how to use them.
Yet for all his technical understanding, most of Mr. Costello's melodies are too long for his expressive muscle. Moreover, they don't go anywhere, often rising a step or two away from a more promising destination. Because of this, Mr. Costello's lovelorn lyrics feel more pat, vacant, and embarrassing than they should. His forms are deeply disjunct, evocative of someone trying to force himself into a tight new pair of sophisticated shoes.
These issues pervade the album but appear most strikingly in the song "When Did I Stop Dreaming." Mr. Costello sings in a perfectly acceptable scale, "You appeared when I was lost in reverie," before segueing into a series of two three-syllable phrases - "Pardon me ... if I seem" - followed by a four-syllable conclusion - "distant and strange" - that references the hemiolas found in Bernstein musicals. It's an artificial assertion of musical pedigree, and it pulls the song apart.
Contrastingly, the song "Fallen," opens with the line: "All the leaves are turning yellow, red and brown / Soon they'll be scattered as they tumble down / Although they may be swept up so invitingly." These three long phrases are stretched into one step-wise tune that searches for a tonic or home key in the most un-intriguing of ways; there aren't tasty deceptive leaps and arrivals in the strain, just boring notes that crave a native land.
Writing the kinds of rock songs for which Mr. Costello is famous may not be easy, but it's not necessarily a talent that translates to the obstacles of the world of standards. To write this sort of music, one needs more than a jazz-singer girlfriend, excellent session musicians, a computer-orchestration program, or an honorary degree in jazz harmony. One needs a gift for spinning moody chords and sappy lyrics into sweet gold.
How strange, then, that Mr. Costello's more famous music is the unofficial theme of "Lost in Translation." In the film, a world-weary performer sits in a plush hotel bar listening to bad lounge acts sing hapless melodies. Mr. Costello is far too tasteful a musician to sing that poorly, of course, and his musicians are clearly adept. But the question remains: If Ms. Coppola's lounge singer had been singing one of this world-weary songwriter's new ditties, would anyone have noticed?
Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun
July 19, 2004 Monday
SECTION: FRONT PAGE; Pg. 1
LENGTH: 727 words
HEADLINE: Not the Future of Classical Music
BYLINE: By ADAM BAER
Funny, but that still hasn’t stopped some of the music world’s most powerful gatekeepers from letting Mr. Costello tackle whatever project he desires (these days classical record companies and presenters will entertain any idea that can make them money). If, for instance, I masqueraded as a classical music Robinhood when Gotham’s sun slid below the sharp peak of the Paramount building, the first thing I would do is kidnap the flacks that brokered Mr. Costello’s deal with the tony classical label Deutsche Gramophon (DG) and force them to listen to the work of some particularly worthy young living composers — the list is long — who deserve the honor of their interest.
For “Il Sogno,” the first “full-length” Costello orchestral work, which debuted Saturday at the Lincoln Center Festival in the hands of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and conductor Brad Lubman, is, in fact, scheduled for a big DG release this September. Yes, an already fraying stylistic patchwork of mediocre theater music which wouldn’t receive attention were it not for the fame of its composer will soon be commercially available to listeners with its title embossed in prestigious DG gold next to the names of its equally prestigious performers: the London Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas. The record may not sell well (it is an attempt at classical music and therefore privy to the genre’s marketing problems). But that’s beside the point because the crime will have already taken place: Mr. Costello is now part of a catalogue that includes names like Leonard Bernstein and Gidon Kremer. He will seem in the annals of music history to have had compositional chops.
The hip Italian dance company Aterballetto commissioned “Il Sogno” four years ago for their adaptation of Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” and it sounds very much like a forgettable contemporary ballet written by a straining, endlessly status-seeking Broadway composer. The syncopated “Puck One” movement of its Prelude is rhythmically plucky — Sondheimish without the harmonic wit and orchestrated colorfully with comforting horns providing cadential warmth. Then come some eerie droplets of bright percussive sound -- ooh!
To Mr. Costello's credit, sophisticated orchestral colors and post-tonal chords arrive sleeky and throughout the "Il Sogno" score -- certain moments of it could make a weak Hollywood studio movie effective. Still, these effects often feel more like contemporary mood music than narratively intrinsic to a particular musical journey (by the way, Michael Tilson Thomas helped Mr. Costello out quite a bit with the editing of the work).
More problematic than the work’s forays into folk and swing (accessible stylistic detours are fun when they aren’t invoked for their own sake) are the pointless explorations of Eastern pitch-bends and gamelan-like timbres — they arrive randomly and abruptly. Style turns on a dime in this piece, as if a child had been clicking his way through an online sound-clip gallery in a multimedia dictionary of genre clichés.
Alas, the second half of Saturday’s show continued with Mr. Costello singing orchestral arrangements of his popular and not-so-popular songs — including the cabaret-like “Hush,” the urbane “All this Useless Beauty,” the Brodsky Quartet project “Almost Blue,” and an intriguingly dramatic song written by pianist Bill Nieve called “You My Sweet.” Throughout these songs, Mr. Costello fell out of tune and spoke-sung in such a Vegas-casino-like way that I wondered what all the tragically cool fans that filled the room were hooting about. Then I remembered the name of his longtime band, the one he performed with the other night - they're called "The Imposters."