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Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous: Songs of Elvis Costello

Although it's meant to further illuminate the songwriting genius of Elvis Costello, the uneven, erratic Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous instead chronicles the artistic demise of a once-great wordsmith. Because it pulls Costello-penned cuts from the albums of an eclectic roster of artists -- from Paul McCartney and Nick Lowe to Ruben Blades and 'Til Tuesday -- the disc is, not surprisingly, a jumbled stylistic hodgepodge that, despite its unified conceptual theme, never coheres.

You'd get better programming from a CD player spinning on "random": Dave Edmunds' charging, guitar-jangled version of "Girls Talk" collides into the faux Shirelles groove achieved by For Real on "Unwanted Number"; the quasi-bolero rhythms and operatic sweep of Roy Orbison's "The Comedians" is sandwiched between Anœna's choral-group drone on "Deep Dead Blue" and Christy Moore's watery folk-lite version of "The Deportees Club"; and 'Til Tuesday's bombastic rendering of "The Other End (of the Telescope)" does nothing to set up Nick Lowe's slick but sharp revision of Costello's redux country classic "Indoor Fireworks."

But this strange mix is not what mars this ambitious tribute; rather, it's the fault of the honoree. With only a few exceptions, Bespoke is culled from Costello songs written between 1985 and 1995 -- the years when his writing went from being mildly ponderous to wildly overblown and pretentious. Once a songwriter of sharp precision and sly intellect whose every word meant something to the song -- what they said as well as how they sounded -- Costello began forsaking rock-based songwriting in 1984 with the word-cluttered Goodbye Cruel World.

By 1989's Spike he was writing in a style that combined Ray Davies' penchant for vignettes and a verbosity that three-to-five-chord rock 'n' roll could never accommodate. (Think Pete Townshend circa White City -- A Novel). When the stories and melodies were good, as they were on "Veronica," "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," and "Satellite," Costello almost equaled his best previous work (i.e., everything from the 1977 debut My Aim Is True to 1981's Trust). Sadly, his muse led him more times than not to infuriatingly stuffy concept albums (The Juliet Letters) and fussy, cacophonous art-pop (Mighty Like a Rose).

The ready-mades and written-to-orders he doled out during those years weren't much better. Although his late-'80s songwriting collaborations with Paul McCartney yielded the magnificent "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws," it also produced the drab, colorless pop of "My Brave Face" (included here) from the ex-Beatle's drab, colorless Flowers in the Dirt. "The Comedians" was written in obvious homage to Roy Orbison's classic tales of paranoia -- "Running Scared," especially -- but it's little more than that; similarly, Costello's "Hidden Shame," recorded in 1990 by Johnny Cash, pays respects to the country standard "Long Black Veil."

The generously rewritten American travelogue "The Deportees Club" -- which first surfaced on Goodbye Cruel World -- benefits from the revision, but Moore's trite folk rendering does it little justice. And "Punishing Kiss" and "Shamed Into Love," heard here by Annie Ross and Ruben Blades, respectively, are torch songs that never catch fire.

Not that Costello fanatics, for whom this set was obviously tailored, will care. They're a rabid lot, enamored of their idol's every pen stroke, his every artistic, poetic conceit. Only two songs here, though, are good enough to break from the confines of his considerable cult: the late Chet Baker's maudlin, pained "Almost Blue" (recorded in 1987) and Robert Wyatt's stark take on "Shipbuilding," both written in the early '80s. The former is a saloon song worthy of Frank Sinatra, and Baker's flat but evocative croon pulls every shred of pathos and angst from the lyrics; the latter is among Costello's greatest works, a piercing look at the domestic dichotomies brought on by war (in this case, the British debacle in the Falkland Islands).

Evocative, tender, touching, and brutally frank, both songs offer reminders of how brilliant Costello can be -- and how long it's been since he was anywhere near that good.

-- John Floyd

Jack Logan/Bob Kimbell
Little Private Angel

After a decade of performing in Athens, Georgia, clubs, the indifferent-to-stardom Jack Logan (day job: swimming pool-motor repairman) was finally convinced to release a double-CD batch of his choppy, occasionally inspired demos in 1994 under the fitting title Bulk. Between woozy moments of shouting the blues and slurring lines like "All I got is shit for brains" were a few gentle, penetrating ready-mades in the After the Gold Rush manner indicating that, with a little more patience, he might be able to nurture his talents, both as a writer and performer. On the flip side, such self-consciousness of craft can sap the good stuff out of a casual performer like Logan; think of the dreck put out by John Doe or Peter Case in recent years -- dull, labored, and lacking the mercurial touch that once made them so vital.

Although his drunken wild-man antics have been considerably curtailed for these more formal sessions with Weird Summer frontman Bob Kimbell, the imposed discipline seems to have done Logan good; he sounds more confident after a little weeding. Together, Logan (lyrics, vocals) and Kimbell (melodies, most instruments) write pastoral folk-pop -- breezy, lazy, and as familiar as the label peeling off your bottle of beer.

On Little Private Angel (from the tiny Urbana, Illinois, Parasol label), Logan's husky baritone no longer bobs and weaves around the music; here it's gift-wrapped in Kimbell's honey-tongued harmonies. The minor-key melodies still suggest Neil Young (the slow, wobbly "Nerves of Steel" suggests Young's druggy "Winterlong" period), yet there's also an unabashedly romantic strain to the warmth of such lines as "You're gonna live in the future/It's gonna be fun."

As aging college-town cult stars honing their craft rather than redefining it, Logan and Kimbell have earned the right to keep their musical ambitions modest. The future may be fun, but it's unlikely to bring success. Whether calmly ruing the wedding day of a girlfriend who slipped away ("Rained Like Hell") or recounting a moment of Sunday softball glory ("Frozen Rope"), it's all easy come, easy go to these guys.

-- Mark Rosen

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John Floyd
Mark Rosen

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