Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

spasc

By Joel Francis

When Elvis Costello picked up an acoustic guitar in the mid-‘80s after two baffling albums full of horns and keyboards, the result was one of the high points in Costello’s already-great discography. Costello teamed with producer T-Bone Burnett for that album, “King of America,” and 23 years later the two are back together for “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.”

Costello has never quite eclipsed that peak, settling into a pattern of churning out reliable genre exercises in country, jazz, classical and rock and collaborating with Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and Allen Toussaint. Burnett, on the other hand, has become the go-to man for Americana/roots recordings, winning a Grammys for his production on Robert Plant and Allisson Krauss’ debut album and the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. The reunion of Costello and Burnett creates an accessible entry point for a public that reaches beyond his usual audience of the core and the curious.

Unfortunately, the magic that sparked “King of America” is absent on “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.” While Burnett has rounded up an all-star cast of bluegrass musicians, the music feels like a stiff genre exercise. It is almost as if Costello is guesting on his own “Pickin’ On” tribute, or starring in “O Brother Where Art Costello.” Costello’s decision to revisit two songs from his back catalog reinforces this notion. “Complicated Shadows” was a great Johnny Cash-inspired slow-burning rock song in its original incarnation back in 1996. Here, it’s half the length and feels like Costello slapped his old lyrics over a generic bluegrass arrangement.

It neither helps nor hurts the listening experience to know that these songs were culled from an unfinished opera about Hans Christian Anderson, previous albums and leftovers from other projects. With little exception, they are all painted with the same brush and do little to distinguish themselves from the gray wash of an album that is neither offensive nor interesting.

The songs that do stand out are the two co-written by Burnett and Costello. “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is an extended innuendo delivered with a broad poke in the ribs and exaggerated arched eyebrow. It recalls the routines of Dusty and Lefty, the off-color cowboy duo played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Riley in the film “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“The Crooked Line,” however, is a standout in the good way. This next-to-last tune rewards the listener for nearly making it through the album with the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. Harris may be the best and most underrated duet singer in music. She consistently works harder on her supporting vocals than most singers invest in their singles. Her voice soars, subtly complimenting the melody, adding a mesmerizing countermelody. Whether on Lyle Lovett’s “Waltz Through the Bottomland” or Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique,” her voice never ceases to inadvertently creep into the spotlight and eventually command full attention.

Drawing on the chemistry she and Costello established in their previous collaboration on his “Delivery Man” album and subsequent tour, Harris doesn’t disappoint on “The Crooked Line.” Like a jazz musician breathing life into a trite pop standard, Harris signing salvages a ho-hum song and arrangement and turns it into something worth repeated listens.

“Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” has been released on Starbuck’s Hear Music label, and it seems a perfect fit for the latte-drinking, NPR-listening caricature scribbled up in political circles. For this audience, Costello’s name means maverick, Burnett’s means quality and the country-folk stylings make it unique, yet comfortable. But fans of Costello, Burnett and bluegrass alike can do much better than this.

Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss


Above: Plant and Krauss get “In the Mood.”

By Joel Francis

Robert Plant may never outlive the shadow of his onetime partner Jimmy Page, but Tuesday night at Starlight he showed unimaginable growth with his unlikely new muse, bluegrass legend Allison Krauss.

The pair’s 23 song, two-hour set explored nearly every facet of American music with a subtly, nuance and beauty Plant’s former four-piece could only dream of. From a rockabilly cover of Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone” to Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” the pair’s voices waltzed in perfect, egoless harmony.

Clad in all black, Plant slinked around the stage like a cat burglar before spontaneously hopping into a spry dance step. Krauss stood in contrast in a bright floral dress, sporting a wide smile and, frequently, a violin on her shoulder.

“Black Dog” was reworked with a banjo delivering the main riff as Plant and Krauss’s voices circled each other on the call-and-response chorus. A spellbinding reading of “Killing the Blues” in the encore set may have been the ultimate demonstration of their musical synergy.

The hammer of the gods may have been missing, but classics like “When the Levee Breaks” (to which Plant snuck a snippet of Bob Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country”) and “Black Country Woman” had plenty of thunder. A cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin'” outrocked ‘em all, though. A harrowing tale of addiction much in the same vein as John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” one could feel the symptoms of withdrawal dripping from the stage as Plant unleashed a couple of his trademark primal wails.

It would be easy for a rocker of Plant’s status to command the stage and bring a captivating performance, but he was very much a team player. He turned the stage over to Krauss for a stunning a cappella reading of “Down to the River to Pray” (boosted by the stellar backing vocals of guitarist Buddy Miller and fiddle/banjo/mandolin player Stuart Duncan) and a haunting version of Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose.” Even bandleader T-Bone Burnett, producer of Krauss and Plant’s “Raising Sand” album, the “O Brother Where Art There Soundtrack” got the spotlight for a song.

Other highlights included a chipper “Gone Gone Gone” performed in front of a shimmering gold curtain that helped the song feel like an autumn road trip. Plant’s solo hit “In the Mood” was married to the Irish melody of “Matty Groves” and was a welcome surprise. “The Battle of Evermore” was the rare Zeppelin number that wasn’t radically reworked.

The assembly of Miller, Duncan, Burnett, acoustic bass player Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose defy the term “backing band.” Their collective resumes include work with Waits, Elvis Costello, Beck, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, to name a few. Amazing songwriters and musicians in their own right, each of these guys are more than capable of mesmerizing solo performances. Together, they might be the greatest band of ringers ever assembled.

The wealth of material worked up for this tour begs for proper release on an encore collaboration or concert release. The entire evening was a treat that deserves to be relived as many times as possible. Hopefully the tour of a lifetime will be preserved for even longer.