Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Music Review: Elvis Costello and the Imposters - Momofuku

After riding a roller coaster for the first time, you’re pumped full of adrenaline and eager to ride it again. After riding it for the second time, you’re a little woozy but still want to give it another go; after all, those carnival tickets weren’t cheap. After riding it for the third time, you still enjoy it but it wasn’t as exciting and unpredictable as you first thought. After riding it for the fourth time, when the carnival’s about to close, the tickets are about all blown, and the stuffed animal you won at tremendous cost is giving your skin a rash, you’re dizzy and disoriented, and that sick feeling in your stomach lets you know that you’re definitely going to upchuck something pretty soon.

Yet despite all this, you’ve enjoyed the ride and know you’ll probably want to tackle that coaster again once the carnival has left town.

That’s pretty much how I feel about Momofuku, the latest offering from Elvis Costello and the Imposters. It’s ultimately a solid album, even if subsequent listens reveal some of the bigger flaws within it.

Without sounding like a Luddite, the album’s best songs are those that feature the traditional patented Costello mix of guitar, drums, and keyboards. One of the album’s highlights is “American Gangster Time,” which prominently features keyboard wizard Steve Nieve on organ. It’s reminiscent of Costello’s earlier work without sounding derivative. Other nice moments include “No Hiding Place,” “Turpentine,” and “Stella Hurt,” complete with enough insults, veiled threats, and wordplay to satisfy those fans who prefer their Costello with a pinch of anger.

The album also contains one of Costello’s most autobiographical songs this side of North. “My Three Sons” is about, well, the singer’s three sons, and is not, despite what anyone might think, the theme song to an upcoming sitcom on CBS that will air immediately after Two and a Half Men. Sure it’s sentimental, perhaps overly so; but it somehow works as part of this album.

Some of the other songs aren’t as engaging. The most distracting aspect I hear in the album is the sometimes too-heavy reliance on background singers (both Costello’s voice and other singers). The most egregious offender is “Harry Worth,” which after a few listens sounds like a cross between Bob Dylan’s Shot of Love and a Bob Marley outtake.

“Pardon Me Madam, My Name Is Eve,” which Costello performed as a stripped-down guitar-only song on his recent solo tour opening for Dylan, seems a little cluttered on the album. Maybe it’s the benefit of having heard the solo outings on Costello’s tour, but the album version just sounds a little too jammed up with background singing.

To paraphrase Moe Green from The Godfather, Elvis Costello was making his bones while the rest of us were chasing after cheerleaders. Whether rightly or wrongly, Costello’s latest albums will always be judged against his late 1970s masterpieces. Maybe that’s inevitable for a musician who’s been releasing albums for that long. While Momofuku isn’t the best album Costello’s ever released (that honor clearly goes to Goodbye Cruel World…wait…), it’s a solid album with some great songs.

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