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CD Review: My Flame Burns Blue by Elvis Costello

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My Flame Burns Blue is one of Elvis Costello’s frequent detours away from his day job as as a rock singer. Here he’s created a live jazz album. This was recorded in July 2004 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Hague.

There are some old-school Elvis fans who only see him as a rock singer, and think it’s all been downhill since Armed Forces. Can’t help you. But if the idea of Elvis Costello singing jazz sounds at all promising to you, you’ll most likely be real pleased with this record. It’s got some sweet jams, and doesn’t sound much like any other record I’ve ever heard by Elvis or anyone else. It’s got a unique flavor.

He is accompanied by Steve Nieve, of course, and the Metropole Orkest. They are an exceptionally cool and unique combination jazz/classical orchestra. One key to their unique sound: Elvis describes them in the liner notes as “the world’s only full-time jazz orchestra with a string section.” One striking thing is a 50s futuristic thing the strings do in places that sounds like a 1950s idea of The Future. It’s like Tucker showing off the car of tomorrow- today!

The first song is probably the best on the album – among several possible good choices. “Hora Decubitis” is a Charles Mingus composition for which Elvis Costello wrote a lyric at the request of the widow Sue Mingus. This is swingin’ and jammin’ all kinds of ways, with special good coming from the classical strings that you wouldn’t expect on a jazz recording.

The melody scats right along about the bird on his window refusing to be caught with Elvis waxing poetic in an affirmation of life written just after 9/11. This probably isn’t his most totally focused lyric – by the highest Elvis standards. There’s not particularly a clear storyline, but it’s got a basic point, bops most poetically, and works pretty nicely in setting off the underlying composition.

Generally, the Elvis emotional palette tends to the darker hues, “guilt and revenge” as he famously described his motivations early in his career. Those have certainly worked well for him, but this album — particularly the best couple of tracks — are most joyous. You can really feel his pure enjoyment of this concert experience all the way through.

My other favorite is his cover of the Dave Bartholomew song “That’s How You Got Killed Before.” This warning against the dangers of messing with men’s wives constitutes high comedy. This is one of the most purely fun and danceable tracks the man’s ever cut. Resistance is futile when those New Orleans horns start slinging them riffs.

Elvis recorded this song a few years back as a guest vocalist with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Inevitably the arrangements come out different. Now, there’s no replacing the unique fruity flavor of the Dirty Dozen, but this has a bigger, fuller sound. (I count 54 names in musician credits, counting Elvis and Steve Nieve.) I might somewhat prefer this recording. It’s all good.

The limitation of this album is in the songwriting. He didn’t write new material for this album, though a couple of his older songs just about sound like new songs. But he includes a number of songs that he originally wrote for other people, which are not his best compositions.

Look, NO songwriter with a record contract gives away his best material. Peter and Gordon didn’t get the cream of the Lennon/McCartney crop. Likewise, Anne Sofie von Otter wasn’t getting Elvis’ best song with “Speak Darkly, My Angel.” It’s a decent song, though I’d have no idea what the lyrics were about without reading the explanation here. But even here, the orchestration makes it pretty interesting. Still, re-claiming songs given originally to others results in several songs that are somewhat lesser cuts on this collection.

Among songs he’s recorded before, “Almost Ideal Eyes” might get the award for most improved. It was written ten years ago, and recorded during sessions for the All This Useless Beauty album. That was one of his least interesting records, and this song didn’t even make that cut. It came out in 2001 on the bonus disc of the Rhino re-issue.

The Metropole Orkest really makes this song come alive here. The bopping saxophone, the trumpet solo and the whole jazz thing turn this into something special, ten times better than the previously published recording. Hearing it here, I’d definitely take this recording head and ears over anything on the other album.

A couple of other of his older songs also particularly stand out uniquely in their new orchestrations. “Clubland” becomes a freaky kind of experimental mambo, with weird twists and turns showing more the classical side of the orchestra. This is radically different sounding from the classic Trust version — and a far richer, more intricate and all-round cool arrangement than anything he was capable of a quarter century ago. The weird way it breaks apart right at the end is exceptionally neat. Besides being changed around, there’s enough new musical content in the arrangement that it’s almost like getting a new song.

The other bestest re-arrangment comes out in “Episode of Blonde.” For starters, this track was originally buried in the back half of the 2002 album When I Was Cruel. This has been one of my top picks for underappreciated Elvis songs, so I’m glad to see it get attention.

But even beyond that, the new orchestration really sets this bad boy off. It’s not that radically different from the studio version, which was kinda jazzy to start with. I’d call it a jazz noir rap.

But this arrangement is a lot fuller and richer. The song was just not properly fully served by the basic rock band lineup. The film score strings particularly add something to this. Also, all this in the live setting seems to inspire Elvis to a notably better vocal performance. Sweeeet!

“Watching the Detectives” doesn’t come out quite as good. This is the song in his catalogue to which I would most nearly compare the original “Episode of Blonde,” if only very broadly for the film noir feel of it. Elvis describes this arrangement as “in the style of a 1950s television theme.” It’s an interesting idea and well executed, but it comes off as more of an intellectual exercise than an expression of soul. This flat just does not have the Pentecostal fire of the original studio recording, or the live recording that came out with Armed Forces.

A couple of his older songs that in theory seem the most ideal for this big orchestra come out not so satisfying in the practice. “Almost Blue” is a classic Elvis jazz torch song. Sinatra should have recorded it. This setting would seem like a good chance to get something like a big Gordon Jenkins or Nelson Riddle type arrangement.

But it just doesn’t quite satisfy. It’s well done and all, but this has distinctly less emotional impact than the Imperial Bedroom original. It’s one of those less-is-more things. This song seems to be better served by the smaller, more intimate sound of the studio recording. This live recording is a big, full-bodied performance for an audience, whereas the original was more like a guy alone in the bar at 2am, lost in thought.

He ends the album with “God Give Me Strength.” This was co-written with Burt Bacharach, and originally featured a Bacharach arrangement. Elvis writes in the liner notes that “the performance is completely defined by Burt Bacharach’s distinctive arranging style.” This is a great song, with a fine live orchestra backing him, so it’s all good. But the most interesting thing about THIS recording is that it shows off how great the original Bacharach arrangement was. Try listening to them back to back.

This comes packaged with a bonus CD of his Il Sogno material. This was originally written as a ballet based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and performed across several countries in Europe. Here, it is somewhat reconfigured for this recording with the London Symphony Orchestra to be a purely instrumental work, sans stage choreography.

Frankly, I can’t really tell the difference. I have the original album, but it never made much impression on me. I suspect, however, that I’m just not entirely getting all that he’s doing. What’s a hetero Kentuckian know from ballet? So, my comments on this will be somewhat limited.

However, I can hear a hook even if I get confused with the form of the development after, and I’m just not hearing them here. I’ve listened to both published versions of this repeatedly, and there’s just not much of it sticking to with me.

One very general thing though, this does sound like real classical music to me. Generally, pop star stabs at classical music come of sounding like general pop orchestrations minus the words and vocal melodies. This stuff actually does sound like some kind of real ballet.

Other than that, I’d just say that the part that’s doing the most for me out of this is “Oberon and Titania.” If you’re looking to try just a bit of the thing, this strikes me as having the most flavor.

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  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Al: I bought this CD yesterday, and first impressions were good. I was more favorably struck than you by “Almost Blue,” kind of smacked of the should-been Sinatra version, as originally intended. Your description of the “50s futuristic thing the strings do” seems on target. Anyway–your review is good enough to do what few reviews do: make me drop everything I’m doing to go experience the matter under discussion again. Seeya, thx.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    well, i’m definitely getting this cd. some folks will crab that Elvis is branching out too much. screw that. The Delivery Man proved that he still has it. this recording just shows that he has other interests.

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    As someone who has willingly followed Elvis down every musical detour he’s taken, I can say that while I’ve enjoyed some excursions more than others, I have never once been bored by the man. I am also heartened by the fact that as he approaches his 60th year, I won’t ever have to worry about him becoming his own tribute band.

    Nice review, Al – I don’t have this one yet, but needless to say, it’s on its way.

  • http://spatulaforum.blogspot.com Nik

    Great review… I hated “North,” which I think is EC’s worst album, so I’m still on the fence as to whether I’ll get this which sounds a bit in the same vein… But you make it sound appealing.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Oh no Nik, this doesn’t sound much at all like North- which I concur is Elvis’ least interesting album. This is far superior in pretty much every way.

  • JoeSchmoe

    What a horrible album. It’s like he was afraid of Richard Cheese lampooning him and decided to do it himself.