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Elvis Costello.

Elvis Costello. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Hear Music HRM-31280-02, 2009.

Anyone who has followed Elvis Costello's prolific and peripatetic career over the past three decades can be forgiven for approaching his latest release with some trepidation. He has repeatedly shown himself unwilling to sacrifice clever wordplay in the service of his songs' structural coherence, and the success of his forays into American country music has been notoriously uneven. This album's title does little to dispel concerns about the former tendency, and the composition of his backing band (which consists of first-call bluegrass sessioneers Jerry Douglas, Mike Compton, and Smart Duncan, among others), raises little red flags of concern as well--can we expect King of America at its best or The Delivery Man at its worst? The answer is a little of both. Costello is still far too anxious to show off his cleverness; he cannot leave it up to us to discover that "How Deep is the Red?" is a secular adaptation of an old gospel song, nor can he resist the temptation to give each song a little subtitle in faux-nineteenth-century salon-song dialect ("Dissatisfied Woman Fears Talking in Her Sleep," "The Terrible Confession of a Life-long Petty Criminal," etc.). That said, however, many of the songs are very good. There is no questioning Costello's mastery of the various genres he exploits here: "Sulphur to Sugarcane" simultaneously evokes the railroad blues of Jimmie Rodgers and the song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66"; "I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came" (written in collaboration with Loretta Lynn) effectively harnesses an old-time country music structure in the service of a quintesscinially Costclloesque song of romantic betrayal; "Hidden Shame," with its chugging rhythm, sounds like a cross between modern bluegrass and old-school rockabilly (and strongly brings to mind "The Bright Light" from King of America). As with all of Elvis Costello's albums, the bottom line is the hooks: are they there, and if so, how deeply are they buried under the wordplay and the clever cultural referents? The answers lo those questions are, in this case, "yes" and "fairly," respectively. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is not an unqualified triumph, but it is also far from a complete disappointment.
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Title Annotation:Secret, Profane and Sugarcane
Author:Anderson, Rick
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Previous Article:Brass Monkey.

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