Monday, July 6, 2009

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is one more reminder why Elvis Costello is one of my favorite musical artists. I have been listening to this record over and over again during the last few weeks. Costello is not only prolific but versatile. In the last several years, he has put out a number of albums of startling variety from, North, an intimate collection of Jazz ballads, to the soulful The River in Reverse, his collaboration with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, to Momofuku, a no nonsense rock album released just last year. Although he works in a diverse number of genres, Elvis always brings his unique sensibility to each. On Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, he returns to a genre he has worked with many times in the past: country music.

The record is far from straight country though. Much of the material on the album comes from an Opera (yes, that’s right, an opera!) Elvis has been composing about Hans Christian Anderson called The Secret Songs. I don’t know if the opera will ever be completed, but the selections here are quite tantalizing. “Red Cotton” is a stunning song about the slave trade, while another selection from the opera, “She Handed me a Mirror,” is a bittersweet song about unrequited love right out of the life of Hans Christian Anderson. When Anderson asked the woman he loved, Jenny Lind, why she didn’t love him back, she simply handed him a mirror.


The album is actually an odd potpourri of material. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of this record at first, but it has grown on me a great deal. Some songs are reinterpretations of older material, such as “Hidden Shame” and “Complicated Shadows,” while others are original songs. One highlight is the beautiful “I Felt the Chill,” a song Elvis wrote with country legend Loretta Lyn.

There is a quality and a sound in this miscellany that evokes what Greil Marcus called “The Old Weird America.” Marcus used this phrase when discussing the world of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Costello even included a bonus track of a song called “What Lewis Did Last” on the vinyl version of the album from a performance he did at a tribute concert to Harry Smith’s collection. The song is a sequel to “Ommie Wise,” an old murder ballad included in the Smith Anthology. Costello also performed an amazing version of “The Butcher Boy” at the same concert. I’m confused as to why that wasn’t included as bonus as well. Here a video for "Ommie Wise", "What Lewis Did Last," and "The Butcher Boy":

Another bonus track from the vinyl version is a wonderful cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” I told you it was an odd collection of songs! Here is a video of Elvis performing "Femme Fatle" live on his show Spectacle:

The uniting force of the album is its sound, which is old-timey Americana, performed adeptly by top notch musicians. This is the specialty of producer T Bone Burnett. It is the collaboration between Burnett and Costello that really makes this album great. T Bone Burnett can do no wrong in my book. In the last couple of years, T Bone has had a hand in many of my favorite records, notably Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Life Death Love and Freedom by John Mellencamp, Say Anything by Sam Phillips, One Kind Favor by B.B King, and Burnett’s own Tooth of Crime. This isn’t the first collaboration between Costello and Burnett either. In 1986, they worked together on The King of America. For a brief time, the two even formed a duo called The Coward Brothers. One disappointing thing about the new album is that The Coward Brothers do not return for a new duet, even if Burnett does sing background vocals throughout record.

Witness T Bone:

I highly recommend Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Newsweek recently featured a video of Elvis, solo acoustic, performing the title track. Here it is:

I’ve also heard that Elvis Costello is going on tour with the band from the album. Along with the material from Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, the band will also be performing songs from throughout Costello’s repertoire, including unreleased material! If they come to the Philly area, I will most certainly be buying tickets. Anyone down?