Costello pumps it up effectively

April 23, 2002


The word on Elvis Costello was that after years spent seeking approval in the "serious" music world via spectacular failures such as "The Juliet Letters" and awkward collaborations with the likes of Burt Bacharach, the Kronos Quartet, Bill Frisell and the London Symphony Orchestra, the ol' grouch has gone back to rockin' 'n' rollin' again.

On the new album "When I Was Cruel" (Island/Def Jam), which arrives in stores today, and at a radio-promotional concert Sunday night at the House of Blues, the advance word turned out to be true--up to a point.

Measures of the old anger, attitude and kinetic energy were indeed in evidence as the 46-year-old Costello took the stage, Fender Jaguar guitar in hand, and backed by an incredibly solid and versatile band, the Impostors, featuring Steve Nieve on electric piano, melodica and Vox organ; drummer extraordinaire Pete Thomas (both ex-Attractions), plus former Cracker bassist Davey Faragher.

Early in a generous, nearly two-hour set, Costello and the Impostors tore through fiery renditions of the punk-era chestnuts "Watching the Detectives" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea." Later on, they encored with an unrelenting "Pump It Up." And while the former Declan MacManus was considerably barer in the scalp and thicker in the waist, he couldn't have played with any more intensity 25 years ago, circa 1977.

The new songs were more problematic, however, and the band delivered a heaping helping of them. (The House of Blues show and an earlier Tower Records in-store appearance were intended to prime the pump for a full tour that will stop June 8 at the Chicago Theatre.)

With "Spooky Girlfriend," Costello aimed for a horror-movie take on the low-budget Bernard Herrmann vibe that made "Watching the Detectives" so effective, but he fell short, settling for a cliche instead of an inspired homage. And the new album's title track was an unqualified disaster, with the skeletal tune stretching on interminably as Thomas tried to augment a lame, repetitive drum loop that Costello triggered from a cheap sampler. Even the ever-imaginative Nieve couldn't save this stinker.

More successful were "Tart," a simple, bittersweet pop song of the type that Costello sadly avoided writing through the '90s, and the acerbic "Alibi." In this, the strongest of his new songs, he set his sights on the pathetic excuses offered by a long list of modern-day whiners and professional victims, and his aim was true indeed.

Once again, Costello underscored that he is at his best when tossing off pop trifles or venting his spleen, rather than trying to impress us with his erudition and artistic ambition. Better the punk poet than the professional songwriting craftsman any day.