In the pantheon of rock 'n' roll icons, Elvis Costello is a tunesmith of almost unparalleled excellence. His writing is sharp, biting and brimming with the insights and dazzling wordplay that wouldn't be out of place in a work of great literature. But there's more. His lyrics are matched by an encyclopedic command of popular music, from rock to country, jazz to blues.
If that gushing makes me sound like an unabashed fan, it's because I am. And the musical genius of Declan Patrick McManus, better known as Mr. Costello, is evident on Live - A Case for Song. Recorded in 1997 for the BBC, this London concert spotlights Costello performing with his longtime backup band, the Attractions; the White City Septet; and the renowned string quartet, the Brodsky Quartet, with which he collaborated on 1992's The Juliet Letters.
Costello fans won't be disappointed. Although the show doesn't include much material from the earlier phase of his career (a period from, say, the blistering rock of 1977's My Aim Is True through 1983's R&B-fueled Punch the Clock), the performance does highlight the depth and range of his oeuvre. This is the Costello who emerged from 1989's Spike, when he made the leap from Columbia Records to Warner Brothers. From that point on, his songwriting became more arch, his lyrical obsessions increasingly meaty and obtuse. It's great stuff, to be sure, but it also means that A Case for Song isn't the best entry for non-EC fans.
Still, Costello is in fine form here, boasting strong, malleable vocals and an easygoing rapport with an appreciative audience. There are plenty of highlights: the rockabilly tinge of "Pump It Up," the lushness of "Man Out of Time" and the tense noir vibe that propels "Complicated Shadows." Moreover, the performance's intimate, luxurious pace helps draw out the poignancy of several songs. "Veronica," about an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer's, is heartbreaking in this stripped-down version. Similarly, Costello tears into powerfully stark renditions of "Almost Blue" and the country ballad "Indoor Fireworks."
With the Brodsky Quartet, Costello shifts gears for chamber music, albeit songs with a pop sensibility. Chances are you will find the results either charming or overly precious, without much in-between room. One definite plus is a quirky arrangement of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" (for more on Elvis and the quartet, check out DVD Talk's Jamie S. Rich's review of Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters).
The playlist is as follows:
Pump It Up
Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?
You Bowed Down
Pills and Soap
I Almost Had a Weakness
The Birds Will Still Be Singing
God Only Knows
Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue
All This Useless Beauty
Man Out of Time
I Want to Vanish
Presented in full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the picture is surprisingly solid and crisp, with strong color and lines. No noticeable defects such as pixilation or combing.
Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 or PCM Stereo. The latter is a bit flat, but the 5.1 mix is first-rate. The sound is sharp and clear.
Casual Elvis Costello fans will probably enjoy A Case for Song, but diehard fans might just find it indispensable. While it doesn't necessarily show off the scope of his catalog -- this is a decidedly non-rocking performance -- EC's sonic adventurousness is in abundance.