Music, Comedy, and Book Reviews: Elvis Costello’s ‘Taking Liberties’, and More

Elvis Costello's Taking Liberties

Elvis Costello, Taking Liberties. Elvis Costello’s four previous albums so excited the fans that they turned to import shops, B sides of singles, and other sources in search of obscure additional material. Now, some such material is no longer obscure; this 20-song package collects virtually all of Costello’s unreleased masters, B sides, and assorted other collectors’ items. The fidelity frequently leaves a bit to be desired, and the set is understandably less cohesive than those Costello himself assembled. On the other hand, the album demonstrates greater diversity than any of the regular releases; and partly for that reason, it rates among the artist’s most impressive work to date. Best cuts include “Girls Talk,” which has been covered by both Dave Edmunds and Linda Ronstadt; the country-styled “Stranger in the House”; the wonderfully frantic “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”; a terrific reading of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine”; and “Just a Memory,” Costello’s best ballad in years.

Marc Benno, Lost in Austin. This is the first record since 1972 from Marc Benno, who previously made three solo discs and a pair of Asylum Choir LPs. Featuring backup by Eric Clapton and attractive, blues-tinged vocals, the Glyn Johns–produced comeback collection boasts tasty guitar (lots of slide) and a mostly engaging set of pensive, unpretentious lyrics. Benno isn’t yet on a par with such stylistic compatriots as J.J. Cale, Dire Straits, and Clapton, but Lost in Austin evidences promise.

Colin Winski, Rock Therapy. Though not recommended for just any ears, this debut from Ray Campi’s former guitar player and co-lead singer is a must for rockabilly fans. Unlike such well-intentioned revivalists as Robert Gordon, Winski evidences not only a love for the genre but a consistent ability to communicate it’s subtle pleasures. Particularly on cuts like “Burnin’ Desire” and “Rockaround,” his band never misses a beat; and Winski’s vocal gymnastics must be heard to be believed.

Magazine, The Correct Use of Soap. Like such acts as Talking Heads, Ultravox, and XTC, Magazine offers music that is futuristic, intelligent, and danceable. And this third album, which features Dave Formula’s trademark synthesizer, John McGeoch’s urgent guitar, and an effective, elaborate production, also sounds like the group’s most spontaneous to date. The main attraction is lead vocalist, writer, and frontman Howard Devoto (who used to be with Buzzcocks), who spits out his appealingly sardonic tales of pessimism and alienation like a man with a mission. Worth a listen.

Steve Martin, Comedy Is Not Pretty. Though by no means totally devoid of good lines and bits, this third comedy album pales alongside its predecessors. Too much of the new material seems both superficial and predictable, and some of it doesn’t even deserve to be called “new” or “material.” Instead of giving us fresh jokes or vignettes, Martin sometimes delivers little but the basic attitudes and personality types that pervaded his earlier discs. True, the comic’s distinctive, cleverly wrought poses added much to his debut LP and still seem funny onstage. Here, though, they also often come across as stale and inadequate. I guess I just expected more of Martin than a three-album progression from punch likes like “excuse me!” to ones like “pardonez moi!”

Greg Kihn Band, Glass House Rock. At first glance, this band may not seem to add up to much. Its forte is straightforward rock and roll—vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and few embellishments; there’s little subtlety in the arrangements and any two-year-old could follow the melody lines. But the outfit’s survival over five years and an equal number of albums is no mystery. Kihn boasts an impassioned, arresting voice; the band’s music is tight and well-hooked, and the players’ enthusiasm pervades every track. On this recommended latest package: vibrant originals like “Desire Me” and “Castaway,” plus covers of Gene Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love.”

Air Supply, Lost in Love. Like its chart-topping title cut, the rest of this Australian group’s U.S. debut takes a straight pop route; lighthearted melodies, cliched love lyrics, and prominently mixed vocals and strings are the name of the game. That sort of AM radio fodder isn’t generally my idea of a good time, but I do make exceptions for exceptional purveyors—like the Bee Gees, ABBA, and now, to some extent, Air Supply. Granted, there’s not a memorable line or musical innovation anywhere on this package. But Air Supply boasts likable, lush production; catchy melodies; and expertly delivered vocals—enough, at least, to raise their music to somewhere near the top of the fluff pile.

The Michael Schenker Group, The Michael Schenker Group. If you’re familiar with UFO, Schenker’s former group, or with Schenker producer Roger Glover (of Deep Purple fame), you should already have a good idea of what awaits you here: heavy-metal powerhouse rock. Schenker ranks among the genre’s more adept guitarists, but that’s not enough to save this album. Vocalist Gary Barden sounds undistinguished; and the music and lyrics, all by Schenker and Barden, indicate a dearth of new and interesting ideas.

Moon Martin, Street Fever. Moon Martin, who started his musical career playing rockabilly, still retains a penchant for the punchy rhythms and barebones instrumentation associated with that genre. He also retains the angry, wronged-lover stance that characterized his previous albums. The problem here is that he seems to be retaining more than growing. I continue to admire his vocals and lyrics and his group’s tight, snappy efforts; but after three albums of stylistically interchangeable material, I’m beginning to wonder whether Martin is just recycling the same few tunes. I’d buy this album, but I’d also cross my fingers and hope for a fresh approach on the next one.

On the Bookshelf

Rock Family Trees, by Pete Frame. One of the most unusual rock books ever turns out to also be one of the most interesting. On giant fold-out pages, Rock Family Trees collects 30 of obsessive rock fan Pete Frame’s incredibly detailed, hand-drawn genealogical charts. Variously covering single bands and entire musical genres, they are crammed with quotes, rumors, dates, discographies, and Frame’s noteworthy opinions.

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