April 2022 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

Elvis Costello: The Boy Named If
EMI EMI2047 (24/192 FLAC download). 2022. Elvis Costello, Sebastian Krys, prods.; Ron Taylor, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Most of us mellow with age; there's no sin in that. Hell, nowadays I can even cope with people playing U2 in my presence. But whilst mellow doesn't have to mean bland, it can sometimes blunt a musician's art.

For me, for a while Elvis Costello has been too much of the elder lyricist rather than the cutting iconoclast he once was. Okay, no one expects an angry Peter Pan, but let's face it, with everything going on in the world, there's plenty to get heated up about.

With The Boy Named If, Elvis puts his teeth back in. This music has energy. There's a sense that these are songs he had to write and which have to be heard. He growls his trademark wordplay: "I was working miracles for petty cash and chemicals" ("Mistook Me For a Friend"); "I speak low and intimate/Like a cardboard sophisticate" ("Magnificent Hurt"). Here, though, the lyrics don't just sit there, pouting and waiting to be admired. They are part of the music, organically at the core of the song. There is passion in his voick—Elvis sings like he means it—and dexterity in his underrated guitar playing.

While this is most definitely an Elvis Costello album, he is reunited with the Imposters, and he is definitely a part of a band—which is especially impressive considering that the parts were recorded separately because of the pandemic.

This is driving pop. Steve Nieve's psycho fairground organ powers them on throughout. Up front in the mix, Pete Thomas's drums have never been better. On upright bass, comparative newcomer Davey Faragher gives it that late-night, small-band vibe that Costello captured on Trust so much earlier in his career. Thoughts of Costello's late '70s/early '80s string of classic albums are brought to mind.

The Boy Named If sits easily beside them. It's that good.—Phil Brett


Charming Disaster: Our Lady of Radium
Charming Disaster (CD). 2022. Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris, prods., engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The music of Brooklyn-based duo Charming Disaster—singer/songwriter Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris—has often been referred to as gothic folk in their 10 years together. Their fourth album might also be called historical narrative folk. Which is not to say that they've changed their style. Inspired by scientist Marie Curie, Our Lady of Radium still shimmers with horror.

This nine-part song cycle invites listeners deep into Curie's life and mind. Her experiments with radioactivity offer plenty of potential for dark lyrics and musical weirdness. So does the poisoning of young women who painted radium on watch faces, as explored in the song "Radium Girls."

The project started as research in 2017, then got pushed to the side. When the pandemic canceled shows and studio time, they hunkered down in Bisker's parents' house and, using everything but the kitchen sink (and maybe even that), they made an engaging and fiercely original album. The DIY sound is quaintly layered, immediacy with a backdrop of eerie fog.

With its slinky chromatic descent, "Bad Luck Hard Luck" features what sounds like wooden spoons on cooking pots and whistling in the bathroom. Bisker's understated voice over a ukulele starts "Elemental," focusing the listener on the scientist's inner dialog; in each phrase of the chorus, Morris sings a long, aching dissonance. The grim reality of "Radium Girls" is ironically cloaked in a melodic waltz. An old piano plunks out "Eat Drink Sleep," a letter from Curie to her late husband.

These songwriters don't shy away from the hard science of their subject. "The Power of the Sun" describes a laboratory experiment transforming radium into energy while metaphorically switching between major and minor thirds and between duple and triple meter. Such evocative songs make great theater.—Anne E. Johnson


Black Country, New Road: Ants From Up There
Ninja Tune (Download). 2022. BCNR, prods.; Sergio Maschetzko, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The members of the British band Black Country, New Road know how to improvise, giving a sense of freedom to their second album. What makes Ants From Up There gripping is how that improvisation is counterbalanced by complex composition. The result defies expectations at every turn.

The accompaniment for "Bread Song" pays homage to one of Steve Reich's aleatoric pieces. Armed with that information, you might expect an experimental melody. Instead, the extemporaneous instrumental sounds bloom into a mushroom cloud of energy in support of a quiet, conventionally constructed vocal line.

Every track contains baffling puzzles that reward multiple listenings yet refuse to be solved. The meter of "Chaos Space Marine" is accented four plus two plus two, giving the frantic rhythm an almost Middle Eastern feel, sublimely incongruous with the blats from Lewis Evans's sax and filigree from Georgia Ellery's violin. Lead singer Isaac Wood has a Nick Cave–like tremor to his low voice, like hesitation marks from a razor blade.

There is no predicting what will happen. Keyboardist May Kershaw opens "The Place Where He Inserted the Blade" like a Schubert miniature, soon joined by legato flute. That living-room Romanticism pixilates into staccato on the line "And I know you're scared, I am scared too." Like a 12-minute symphony, "Basketball Shoes" meanders through three minutes of incremental instrumental growth before Wood starts singing. Sax overdubs reach free-jazz intensity only to disappear, replaced by guitar and fiddle. The sections that follow barely reference the first few minutes.

BCNR seems to draw at will from every musical style they can think of, often all at once. What could have been cacophony instead resonates powerfully. These songs, like life, start out one way then veer into the unexplainable.—Anne E. Johnson

Michael King's picture

The last paragraph and closing sentence of the review say everything about the album, it is that good. My only criticism is about the sound quality. To my ears it is not as pleasing as the early albums you mentioned. On first hearing it came across as brittle and over modulated. Repeat listening confirms this. I'd like to turn up the volume on some songs but if I do, my fillings start to hurt. I'm a happy Deezer hi-fi subscriber and this source is not the problem. Sadly, too many contemporary pop/rock recordings have this issue. Just my opinion of course. Happy Easter everyone.

DaveinSM's picture

Elvis Costello was a new wave pioneer and writes pithy lyrics. I get why music snobs and so-called music critics find him easy to make their darling.

But bashing U2 doesn’t reinforce Costello’s merits, nor his significance.

The fact of the matter is that, musically, he isn’t one TENTH the singer that Bono is. Nor was he ever.

gregsolo's picture

My favorite album since 86's Blood & Chocolate. A consistent, inspired play through. A lot of energy with truly catchy moments and the band sounds terrific. A fun rock album with dense lyrics as usual. Elvis is clearly happy to be there and showing no sign of slowing down. The last song, Mr. Crescent, is beautiful.

Allen Fant's picture

Nice over-view AEJ.
Always good to see new EC.