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Old 02-27-2009, 03:25 PM   #64 (permalink)
why bother?
Bulldog's Avatar
Join Date: Sep 2008
Location: UK
Posts: 4,826

Right, time to keep this thing rolling then...

All This Useless Beauty
1996, Warner Bros Records, Windmill Lane (Dublin) & Westside Studios (London)

Following his curating the 1995 Meltdown Festival (during which he must have sang about 50 songs with almost as many bands and guests over eleven days), Elvis Costello originally proposed a double-album to Warner Bros, which would consist of songs he'd written down the years but had been to gather dust in the vaults 'til then. Also, a Case For Song (as it was initially entitled) would be a hotch-potch of pieces he's written for other artists, such has Hidden Shame for Johnny Cash, You Bowed Down for Roger McGuinn and so forth. Unfortunately, given that his last three records for them sank like stones upon release, Warner Bros rejected the proposal in favour of a more marketable twelve-song album.

As a result, upon entering the studio with the Attractions again, a lot of songs were recorded and shuffled in and out of the final running order. All This Useless Beauty though is something more than a collection of Costello's works intended for other singers as well as the unreleased oldies, as good old Geoff Emerick produced a record which finds a much more mellow series of ballads providing the heart of the product, and certainly resulting in the most calm and easygoing Attractions album. There is the occasional more upbeat moment here and there, but we'll get to those later.

1. The Other End Of the Telescope
As with a lot of good albums, the opening track is the perfect indicator of the overall mood of the record ahead. The song, which was originally intended for Aimee Mann, is a gentle piece of balladry, with Costello's vocals and guitar along with Nieve's piano pushed to the front of the mix. A gorgeously melodic opener, featuring some more fine wordplay in the lyrics;

'You're half-naked ambition and
You're half out of your wits
Or several tiny fractions that
This portrait still omits
And it's so hard
To pick the receiver up when I call
I never noticed you could be so small
The answer was under your nose
The question never arose'

2. Little Atoms
Recorded in a very similar vein to the Other End Of the Telescope, Little Atoms is another little ditty which kind of floats out of the speakers at you due to the added spice of a Steve Nieve synth-loop punctuating the track. Another very fine song, which features just about the best line ever in 'if you still don't like my song, then you can just go to hell'. 8/10

3. All This Useless Beauty
This here's the first time a title-track would appear on the album to which it belongs, and it's another damn fine song at that, taking us through the record's very strong opening salvo. Needless to say, I just love the lyrics as well, this little bit in particular;

'She won't practice the looks from the great tragic books
That were later disgraced to face celluloid
It won't even make sense but you can bet
If she isn't a sweetheart or plaything or pet
The film turns her into an unveiled threat'

4. Complicated Shadows
Another one written with Johnny Cash in mind (which, incidentally, he turned down in favour of the aforementioned Hidden Shame), Complicated Shadows is one of the more up-tempo, electrified songs here. It's a well-rounded song, and one which actually allows Bruce and Pete Thomas to become noticeable all of a sudden, especially during the heavier instrumental bursts after each chorus. 8/10

5. Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?
As you can probably guess from the title, this is the angsty moment around these parts, which is complimented by another slower arrangement. Unlike the four tracks preceding it though, it doesn't really go anywhere musically, and is to me the only below-par moment on an otherwise very fine album. 5/10

6. Distorted Angel
Fortunately the quality picks up again here, with a song fairly similar to Little Atoms, in that it's a slow piece of music while not exactly straying into ballad territory, all the while being punctuated by a synth motif. Instrumentally, vocally and lyrically it's another good enough song. Not great exactly, but worthwhile. 7/10

7. Shallow Grave
On an album of previously-unreleased material, a Paul McCartney co-write or two from yesteryear was bound and pop up and, indeed, it does right here. In sounding a lot like Pads, Paws and Claws from Spike, Shallow Grave is by far the most furiously unrestrained song which made the final album, and one which sounds like it would have suited Brutal Youth a lot better. Still a great, heavy(ish) tune though. 8/10

8. Poor Fractured Atlas
But here the versatility of the Attractions as a backing band is again showed off nicely, as the album has a hangover-like moodswing from berserk to a soft, much more reined-in approach. Such a fragile arrangement you feel like it'll break if you go too near the speaker, and another very beautiful song. 8/10

9. Starting To Come To Me
Having first been demoed prior to the Mighty Like a Rose sessions, Starting To Come To Me finally saw the light of day here as a fully-realised slice of uplifting new wave, and it's really the only track which looks back at Costello's past achievements. Well, uplifting musically anyway, as this snippet should illustrate;

'In private she's seductive but in public she's prim porcelain and nervous
Afraid someone will recognise the shame in her eyes
You've still got the next-best disguise
You never know when to say no and when to comprimise
But it's starting to come to me'

10. You Bowed Down
And here's another one of the faster songs as the pace stays relatively sharp towards the album's end. Led by Costello's electric guitar and featuring a curious slice of studio trickery in the bridge, it's a decent enough song, but nothing truly spectacular. 6/10

11. It's Time
This, however, is. Not to say there's anything at all wrong with the rest of the singing, but this song's the only place where the fiery, angry passion in Costello's older work with the Attractions is present for all to see, doing justice to lines like 'but if you do have to leave me, who will I have left to hate'. It's a brilliantly-written, loud and unpretentious piece of hard (well, kinda) rock, and one of the man's very very best. 10/10

12. I Want To Vanish
And it'd be the high-point of the album if it weren't for this little gem right here, another slice of brilliance which lies right on the other side of the speedometer. Another very fragile song, backed up by Nieve's wonderful piano-playing and fittingly mixed contributions from his pals in the Brodsky Quartet, Costello sings beautifully, armed with one of his finest lyrics;

'If you should stumble upon my last remark
I'm crying in the wilderness
I'm trying my best to make it dark
How can I tell you I'm rarer than most?
I'm certain as a lost dog
Pondering a signpost'

The Outtakes:
Almost Ideal Eyes: Something of a sister-song to Shallow Grave, it's a truly berserk and hyperactive piece of songwriting, and a very fine piece of work at that.

That Day Is Done: Recorded beautifully by Paul McCartney for his Flowers In the Dirt album some eight years earlier, Costello has a pop at this co-write himself here, and does a very fine job with it.

God Give Me Strength: Initially written for some bloke called Burt Bacharach, while it was recorded with the Attractions during these sessions, we'll be hearing more about this one later.

What Do I Do Now?, Mistress and Maid, World's Great Optimist, the Only Flame In Town, the Comedians, the Days Take Care Of Everything, Hidden Shame and Punishing Kiss: All of these are solo, acoustic demos, many of which are very fine songs indeed (look out for Hidden Shame and World's Great Optimist in particular). I'm sure a few of them were recorded by with Attractions, but as yet any such versions of these songs are yet to see the light of day.

So, summing up then...
On the face of it, a project such as this doesn't really promise an awful lot, but what we're instead faced with is one of Elvis Costello's much better albums, and a very real insight into the quality and quantity of his output. Overall, a very soothing, chilled and gentle album indeed, and definitely one I'd highly recommend.
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