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Costello caterwauls again

Courtney Eckerle | Tuesday, November 30, 2010

3 1/2 out of 4 shamrocks

Not many British artists can sling on the boots of Americana music quite so comfortably as Elvis Costello, which he does, and then some, on his latest album, “National Ransom.” His 10th album in 11 years, it’s the result of years of dabbling in every genre known to man, and in many parts the best music past decades have had to offer. It’s a jiving, dance hall, vaudeville, rock ‘n roll serenade courtesy of the powerhouse musician and songwriter Costello.

Paired for the second time with producer T-Bone Burnett (the first time being his last album, “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”), Costello cements his status as a musical bard, tramping his way through musical history. The storytelling on this album is both heart wrenching and fun.

The finger-picking “Dr. Watson, I presume,” for instance, is an ode to real life 87-year-old bluegrass musician Doc Watson, whom Costello met when performing at the annual MerleFest music festival Watson hosts yearly in North Carolina. Costello says in the   trailer for “National Ransom” he wrote it after being inspired by a particularly poetic conversation about Watson’s life.

With lyrics like, “Running pell-mell and harum-scarum/Running as hot as they do or dare/Stick out your tongue/And drink down all the venom/From Cut-Throat Cuthbert” in the title track “National Ransom,” it’s easy to catch the jump-jive and shake, rattle and roll Costello fever. Not as sweet as it seems at first, it’s also an old-fashioned protest of the wolves on Wall Street, with the lines, “Mother’s in the kitchen picking bones for breakfast/There’s a wolf at the window with a ravening maw.”

“Jimmie Standing in the Rain” is a ghoulish, vaudevillian tune about a failed music hall singer who stumbles from one indiscretion to the next. The song showcases the morose feeling of Jimmie getting drenched at a Lancashire train station.

“Where have you been all my life?” is what one feels after a listen to “A Slow Drag with Josephine.” Songs these days need more whistling; how is it that we didn’t know it until now?

“That’s Not The Part of Him You’re Leaving” is the depressing country slow song you love to croon on a long, lonely road trip home, preferably with a howling hound dog at your side. It’s also perfect for a leading man to drown his sorrows in at a dusty saloon somewhere after losing his lady love (he thinks for forever, but we’ll see).

It may not be the most cohesive, flowing album on the books, but it always feels genuine, and supplies a tune for every age, genre and heart. “National Ransom” is the Elvis Costello we’ve come to know and love.