Saturday, September 15, 2007

Music Review: Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True (Deluxe Edition)

By my count, this is approximately the 54th time My Aim Is True has been reissued. Rykodisc reissued the CD a number of years ago, followed by Rhino’s 2001 two-disc reissue, which seemed to close the book on Elvis Costello’s debut album. The 2001 reissue, besides being loaded with vintage-era photos, posters, and promos, included liner notes penned by Costello himself, which were both funny and informative. They were also the closest thing to a Costello autobiography fans might ever get. Plus, they placed the album in the context of Costello’s life at that time. In short, it had all the makings of the final word for this album.

Then, in 2007, Hip-O reissued the album, in digipack format with “original packaging” but without any bonus material. So when I later read that Hip-O was planning to issue a “deluxe version” of the album, I approached the news with quite a bit of skepticism. At a time when album sales are steadily declining but sub-standard reissues flood the market, it’s a fair question to ask whether another release of this album is necessary. After all, between the Rykodisc and Rhino versions, coupled with the My Aim Is True outtakes and live material that have floated around on bootlegs for years, what rock has not yet been turned over?

To my surprise, the Hip-O reissue in most cases surpasses the Rhino reissue, and makes it (hopefully) the last necessary reissue of this album. With two discs and around two hours of material including outtakes (the Pathway studio demos and an early Attractions performance from August 1977), Elvis’ army will find plenty to like. That will likely reward them for shelling out more baksheesh for another reissue.

New Costello fans who have not yet purchased the album should consider themselves lucky; they can buy only this version and find Costello’s liner notes from the Rhino version online. Then they should hope and pray another reissue with better material doesn’t hit in the next couple years.

To be sure, the reissue is not perfect. Its biggest drawback is the complete lack of liner notes that offer a fresh, or any, interpretation or appreciation of the album. I am not advocating the sycophantic-praise approach that plagues so many reissues, but either a new introduction by Costello or others associated with the making of the album (or bloody hell, a reprint of Costello’s notes from the Rhino reissue) should have been included.

The other shortcoming is the actual packaging, which becomes increasingly important as a selling point as music labels try to compete (or cooperate) with iTunes and other similar outlets. Most of the booklet included with this reissue consists of the lyrics to the album and reproductions of 1977-era posters, buttons, and other promotional materials that for the most part already appear in the Rhino reissue. However, the fold-out photo of the band onstage, along with the two photos of Costello in concert on the actual digipack, are very cool.

Nevertheless, this reissue is an essential purchase for a few reasons. The wealth of bonus material crushes the Rhino version like a grape. Whereas the Rhino version’s bonus disc contained less than 40 minutes of material, most of which was pretty dull and also widely available on bootlegs like Our Aim Is True or Flip City Demos, both discs on the Hip-O version are packed full of goodies. Two of the outtakes on Disc One were included on the Rhino version, but the other two demos were not. In addition, the Pathway Studio demos are now available on CD for the first time (with the exception of “Welcome To The Working Week”). The demos far surpass the Rhino material in showing how the songs took shape and evolved; the demo version of “Miracle Man” in particular rivals the version that would eventually find its way to the album.

Even better is the second disc, which consists of a 17-song live performance in London from August 7, 1977, as well as the earlier sound check from that show. Despite having begun playing live as a band a little more than two months before this show, the Attractions are remarkably tight and the show itself is blistering. Though not as manic, frenzied, aggressive, or confrontational as the wild live shows from 1978 that can be heard via unofficial channels, it’s the perfect document of Costello and the Attractions in their earliest days. Shades of the musical hysteria and savagery that would follow as the band toured Europe and United States in 1978 can be heard in the live versions of “Lip Service” and “Night Rally.” The recording quality of the show is also perfect; even the most critical ears will be hard-pressed to find something to criticize about the performance.

Other artists and labels looking to reissue their classic albums should use this reissue as a blueprint for satisfying even the most hardcore fans. At no point does this reissue come across as a cheap cash grab (like, say, the baffling and truly unessential Springsteen We Shall Overcome reissue, and from a blue-collar man of the people, no less). The demo and outtake material go a long way in creating a definitive overview of Costello and the Attractions circa 1977, and the Nashville Rooms concert is as good as any other 1977 show that has been traded over the years. Similar treatments for Costello’s other great albums would be very welcome, especially for This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy!

However, I’m drawing the line at any further reissues of Punch The Clock or Goodbye Cruel World.

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