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By John Brodeur

Who would think that after almost 35 years, rarely does a year goes by that we don’t get a new offering from the “King of Pop,” Elvis Costello. Truly, one major complaint that could be made about this man is that he’s too prolific—rarely does he let the dust settle on any one project before moving to the next. And at 16 songs (that’s not counting the half-dozen or more bonus tracks available on various alternative versions of the record), his new National Ransom is, in itself, a lot to swallow, even for a guy who probably dashes off a dozen tunes while he’s brushing his teeth.

But hindsight would show Costello’s generally strong track record has delivered a knockout every five or six years, and the record will go to show that National Ransom is another high point. Again, he teams with producer T-Bone Burnett for a largely acoustic-flavored set. But unlike the distinctly country-flavored Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, which suffered mostly from a lack of variety, this year’s model is a winner because Costello tries on all his stylistic hats in one sitting, while lamenting America’s financial errs—meaning he’s angry, which is always a good thing.

At this point in his career nobody’s going to tell him he can’t put certain songs together; surely, few would think to pair a dark R&B number like “Stations of the Cross” with the folky picking and old-timey harmonies of “A Slow Drag With Josephine” (on which Costello whistles his way into the sunset). This makes for an easy listen—Ransom divides neatly into four quarters, divvied up by bright roots-rock tunes. “Five Small Words” sounds pulled from the artist’s Blood and Chocolate-King of America zenith, while the title track and “I Lost You” has the heavy backbeat and slide-guitar ring of a Tom Petty record circa Full Moon Fever.

Costello is in such fine control of his expression at this point, his voice having mellowed over the years, that his harmonies are now a truly appealing blend. Take note of Elvis the crooner on “You Hung the Moon,” a very pretty song relative to his great “I Want to Vanish,” on which he puts a perfectly gorgeous melody to the darkly funny (as opposed to just dark) opening line: “You hung the moon/From a gallows in the sky.”

Burnett’s production is simply pristine. On “One Bell Ringing,” you can picture the players in the room—a muted trumpet playing harmony, a bass clarinet gone rogue—as Costello sings a dark folk tune reminiscent of Richard Thompson. Thompson’s spirit is also felt in “The Spell That You Cast,” where the angular guitar riffs and signature farfisa power-pop of the Attractions’ heyday mixes with the mandolins of latter-day Elvis work.

Costello toured with Bob Dylan a few years ago, and it would appear he made off with whatever of Bobby’s old spirit was left milling around. And so, Ransom’s best track is actually the least adorned. “Bullets for the New-Born King” presents just the singer and his acoustic guitar, with a lyric that is among the album’s darkest (“So where are those traitors now, we once called patriots?/Just like those saints who seem to revel in their sins”) and a performance that is probably what should be expected from a guy who, again, routinely plays 10-song acoustic sets before breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, you can buy this album at your local Starbucks, which is weirdly subversive considering its greed-is-bad tone. But Elvis needs to buy his coffee, so . . .

From one old dude to another: Legendary producer and instrumentalist Brian Eno is back with his first solo album in five years, Small Craft on a Milk Sea. The big news is that it’s on the Warp label—it’s pretty cool for the guy who pretty much invented “ambient” music to be putting an album out on the label synonymous (thanks largely to one Richard “Aphex Twin” James) with bringing “ambient” to the masses in the 1990s.

That choice of distributor should also give a clue as to the album’s content: No lyrics this time, but rather a comprehensive overview of why Brian Eno’s contribution to modern music should be bronzed and put on God’s mantlepiece. From the Aphex-esque float of “Complex Heaven” to the tribal rhythms and gushes of white noise on “Flint March,” Eno’s biggest moves here are suggestive. Milk Sea is a record for the next Ice Age, all long stretches of anticipation with brief moments of release. When “Two Forms of Anger” finally breaks into propulsive drums and guitar dissonance after two-and-a-half minutes, it does so for less than 60 seconds. It’s not music to discuss, really, but to experience—and on that front, it’s highly recommended.

Now that it’s finally here in context we can talk about Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” and its corresponding LP, The Lady Killer. This third solo collection from the former Goodie Mob rapper comes almost seven years after the Southern-rap exploration Cee Lo Green . . . is the Soul Machine; more importantly, it comes on the heels of two successful albums as the singing half of Gnarls Barkley. And now that he’s a pop star, he’s more or less required to make pop record. So he leads with a single whose name cannot be spoken or printed in most media?

Joke’s on us, as the modern paradigm allows for an indelible throwback pop song like “Fuck You” to break through as a hit despite its supposed handicap. Here’s hoping that success pushes the album up the charts, too, as The Lady Killer is fun through and through, blending commercial but intelligent dance-pop with smoky slow jams that recall Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. It sounds like a movie soundtrack album (a major compliment).

The arrangements really seem to be the focus here: Green has personality to spare, but he’s also an accomplished artist that knows how to handle a song. Meaning he doesn’t get in its way—he even yields the microphone for the chorus of “Satisfied.” “Wildflower” comes off like an ’80s Philip Bailey R&B tune; Bailey himself makes an appearance on the Jack Splash-produced “Fool for You.” On The Lady Killer, Cee-Lo Green brings us sexy songs that don’t sound depraved, with music that frequently alludes to old-school soul and spy-movie themes. That’s a recipe for success in my book.


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