Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Limited, Primitive Kind of Man

Some weeks back, I blogged about the new record Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley was (and I guess still is) putting together in L.A. It had been announced that she would be employing 1970s-era technology, chucking the computers and massive mixing boards that have become standard equipment in recording studios these days. One of her guest stars on that solo album will be the great Elvis Costello, and leave it to him to pick up that low-tech, high-speed ball and run with it. Before Jenny could get her album out, Elvis has released ...

Momofuku by Elvis Costello and The Imposters (p. Elvis Costello and Jason Lader)

Elvis Costello's latest is a hastily recorded affair, appropriately named for the man who gave the world the instant Cup O' Noodles. In the week and a day it took to record Momofuku, Elvis would hardly have had time to microwave that tasty treat in the Sound City Studios break room.

Like the Breeders' Mountain Battles from earlier this year and the upcoming Jenny Lewis project mentioned in the prologue, this album represents another salvo in a mini revolution against the overblown, overdigitized modern recording techniques that have helped reduce too much music to so many bits and bytes. Elvis takes the whole thing a step further (as is his wont) by hammering out this set of twelve songs in a rapid-fire blast. For a man who launched his career by releasing six stuffed-to-the-gills albums in a scant four years, it must have seemed like old-home week. And a day.

The recording technique is all well and good, but would ultimately be an irrelevant inside-baseball trivia factoid if the music produced weren't of value. Fortunately, Momofuku is a top-notch Costello effort.

After spending much of the 1990s in collaboration with a number of different artists (Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, opera singer Annie-Sofie von Otter and others), Costello refocused himself on his own material and began recording with the Imposters, essentially his old backing band the Attractions with troublesome bassist Bruce Thomas replaced by Davey Faragher. Costello and the Imposters released When I Was Cruel in 2002 and The Delivery Man in 2004, each of which can stand proudly next to the Costello classics of the 1970s and early 1980s.

And now with Momofuku, Costello and the Imposters have produced their best yet.

As with much of Costello's best, he starts off furious. On "No Hiding Place," the object of his fury is a familiar target: the press, and specifically the internet press (Hey! That's me!). "You can say anything you want to/In your fetching cloak of anonymity," he taunts, taking those OTHER internet blog types (not me, I'm sure) to task for their lurid interests and for setting themselves up in judgment. It might come off as overly self-righteous if it didn't also deliver a thumping riff anchored by a rubbery bassline.

From there, he turns his anger to another common Costello concern: his ongoing love/hate affair with the good ol' U. S. of A. (Hey! That's me too!). In "American Gangster Time" he rails against having to salute that "starry rag" in between descriptions of hookers, tricks and wartime journalists, all of whom are one in the Costello-verse. Again, it's the music that transforms the bile into cathartic release with a jagged guitar figure and a nifty carousel organ accent courtesy of longtime Attraction/Imposter Steve Nieve.

After that, the finger pointing gets turned back on himself as Costello confesses to indiscretions with the bottle ("Turpentine"), to not always having been the best of fathers ("My Three Sons") and when true love rears it's head in "Flutter and Wow," he reacts with incredulity ("I can't believe this is happening/You make the motor in me/Flutter and wow").

Throughout, the Imposters and their guests, including Jenny Lewis and drummer Pete Thomas's drummer daughter Tennessee, pound out high-energy rock and roll in a number of varied styles: jazz on "Harry Worth," country on "Song with Rose" (a writing collaboration with Rosanne Cash), Brechtian cabaret on the tale of age inappropriate love in "Mr. Feathers" and British Invasion cheese on "Go Away." That last sums up all the drama of relationships neatly: "Why don't you come back baby?/Why don't you go away?"

And it was all knocked out in just eight days. Almost as an afterthought.

It might be named after the noodle guy, but Momofuku is a substantial rock and roll meal, complete with seconds and dessert.

4 stars.

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