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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

Great artists often are great liars—or at least don’t know their own mind. Disgusted with the business end of his vocation, Elvis Costello had sworn off recording. But then this thing defied that proclamation and came out of nowhere, just when we needed it most. Momofuku was recorded on the fly and originally intended for vinyl. The edict was clear: Bash the thing out without overcomplication, don’t precede it with any press, and name it after the guy who invented the Asian cup noodle. It was recorded to tape and completed, soup to nuts, in a week.

And like I said, we need Elvis more than ever. But we need the old one, the man whose nasty aggression bore symbiotic fruit with an unerring ear for melodic shiftiness and a feral, frantic energy. We don’t need the guy who croons in front of orchestras, serves Diana Krall breakfast in bed, duets with Bacharach, and pimps for Lexus cars. We need the guy who hit the same primal pleasure center of our cortex as the Clash did, while still fingering our intellect. He has tried to be that Elvis again in previous years, but it always seemed self-conscious.

There’s nothing self-conscious about “No Hiding Place,” though. The opening track on Momofuku agonizingly dangles in front of you and then darkly and prettily plunges. Over a minute in, Steve Nieve’s organ and a backing chorale prettily undercut the trenchant lyrics and grubby guitar, and you realize this is hallmark Costello—one foot in the old, but also renewed.

“American Gangster Time” is even coarser, with rude, crotchety barroom guitar. But in the chorus it just flies, the gravitational pull of his melodic sensibilities too strong for the harsher musical currents. And that’s what you always wait for in an Elvis Costello song: the takeoff. “Flutter & Wow” momentarily returns to the lounge-sophisticate persona he can never quite shake, but it is dispelled by the moody, primitive tumult of “Turpentine.”

He had some help facilitating his muse: veteran colleagues Nieve and Pete Thomas, as well as guest spots from Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and a younger generation, including Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) and Johnathan Rice. It’s been 31 years since we first heard from Costello, and it turns out he’s still simmering. As he puts it in “No Hiding Place” (an excoriating paean to the Internet Age): “Walk up to me and say what you said/See how brave you are when I’m about this far away.” Beautiful.

While Costello is always a litmus test for a decent record collection, Neil Diamond remains somewhat of a punchline, despite having written countless great songs, from one of my favorites, 1967’s “Solitary Man,” to one of my kids’, “I’m a Believer.” Rick Rubin pulled the same move with Diamond that he pulled with Johnny Cash, stripping him back to the spare acoustic quick on 2005’s 12 Songs. In typical Diamond bad luck, that album was yanked from shelves because copy protection software was messing up computers. But Rubin has done an even better job with Home Before Dark, employing a couple of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers to offer subtle instrumentation while Neil, leagues from “Sweet Caroline” and an arena full of menopausal worship, strums away on his acoustic. Diamond unearths something ragged and tragic that he wears well. From the brooding acceptance of the seven-minute “If I Don’t See You Again” to the stately Euro-folk of “Pretty Amazing Grace,” Diamond feels like he’s really trying for the first time in decades, turning off that damn heart light and plumbing darker, more ambivalent depths.

Maybe Rubin, who also produced a portion of the new Weezer album, should have done something similarly creative with Rivers Cuomo, because the old bag of tricks—straight-faced pseudo-irony, clotted-cream guitars, cheeky trash-culture cramming—is wearing thin. The likeable “Heart Songs” spins out a dreamy tribute to the cheesy music of his youth (Gordon Lightfoot, Quiet Riot, Pat Benatar, etc.) while “Dreamin’” evokes 1994 Weezer beneath a haze of sunshine bubble-crunch. But my overall impression is this: I think Rivers manages to perennially appeal to literal adolescents rather than the adolescent inside the discerning music listener. So whether your first Weezer album was blue, green, or red, pretend it’s the band’s first as well, because they refuse to grow with you. Stay gold, Rivers.

Solomon Burke came from the dark end of the street, a genuine and once-underappreciated country-soul/R&B legend from the ’60s who experienced a renaissance in the new millennium. His is not a sepia trip down through the past though, and Like a Fire bristles with contemporary energy. It’s got something to do with having folks like Keb’ Mo’ and Ben Harper on board. (Eric Clapton wrote for the album as well.) It’s got even more to do with the fact that his singing is still contentious and vital, like he’s trying to wrestle down a dark thing that followed him up from the past.

If Burke pioneered country-soul, then Emmylou Harris is a country singer in need of a soul infusion . . . or something. (Yes, I am that rare breed who believes that Harris has never made a great solo album, despite remaining an omnipresent figurehead for baby-boomer Americana hippie chic.) On All I Intended to Be Harris thankfully abandons the new-agey texture-scapes she frequently dabbles in and has returned to an earthiness that more befits her mountain-spring vocals. She also brings aboard the similarly omnipresent Vince Gill and Dolly Parton to legitimize the down-home feel. I mean, it looks, feels, and sounds like the real stuff, but something is missing. I’m pretty sure it’s that thing that even the most skilled technicians can’t manufacture.

 

 

 



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