Fallen angel

Thumb-wrestling my way through a concert by the once great Elvis Costello. Plus: Edward Norton's favorite band, and free music from John "The Breakfast Club" Hughes' son.

Published July 21, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Last Saturday I went to the Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall to see a real live fallen angel, the once great Elvis Costello. His debased status was made official last year with his marriage to Diana Krall: It's simply incomprehensible to me that a great artist could fall in love with someone so artistically vapid, even insidious ... ergo, Costello must no longer be a great artist.

The first half of the program was devoted to a concert performance of Costello's hour-long orchestral ballet, "Il Sogno," which it's hard to view as anything but a hubristic vanity project. Jon Pareles, in the New York Times, described the work in a few sentences while diplomatically avoiding any pronouncements on its quality, but the New Yorker's Alex Ross, writing in his excellent blog, didn't pull any punches: "I did something I've never done in twelve years of reviewing concerts in New York: I got out a book and started to read. My brain needed something else to grasp on to -- I felt like I was clawing the air and plummeting."

I feel his pain: My girlfriend and I, sans book and having read the very dull program cover to cover, resorted to a lengthy thumb-war tournament, much to the disgust of the rather starched-up couple behind us. To be fair, while "Il Sogno" is boring, tremendously boring, it's not bad. It's actually astonishingly competent for anyone's first attempt at orchestral writing -- but it's the rare prodigy whose first attempt at orchestral writing merits performance at the Avery Fisher Hall.

The second half of the concert was devoted, mercifully, to Costello's songs. He sang accompanied by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, as well as the always excellent Greg Cohen on bass and Steve Nieve on piano. Nieve was the keyboardist in Costello's band, the Attractions, and has been his almost constant musical sidekick, but he is a truly horrendous and tasteless piano accompanist, and should never be allowed near a 9-foot grand. The songs were uneven -- many were culled from the less-memorable corners of the Costello catalogue ("The Juliet Letters," "North"), while some of the classics sounded uncomfortable being dragged into this world of strings, dragging tempos and turgid piano arrangements.

But for all that, I was spellbound. Over the last decade, Costello has developed, quite unexpectedly, into a great torch singer. His vibrato can go a little bit overboard, sometimes even making it ambiguous what note he's trying to sing, but his phrasing is both impeccable and distinctive. And most important, I always believe him.

I've been overwhelmed with e-mail recently, but I'm reading it all, and replying to as much as I can. Apologies if you haven't received a response. I will also be spending some time in Table Talk, at the Wednesday Morning Download thread, so stop in there if you want to chat.

"The Beast," The King of France, from "Untitled"
The King of France does not have a record deal, and the band's shows are sparsely attended, but I am fully confident that one day they will be legendary. That may seem like an extreme statement, but this King inspires extreme devotion: The small fan base is among the most obsessive I've ever encountered (and includes Edward Norton, who dedicates half of his new iTunes Celebrity Playlist to songs by the King of France). The reason for this devotion is not immediately clear: The band is not particularly hip or young, it does not sound anything like trendy influence du jour the Gang of Four, and while keyboardist Tom Siler's hair is shaggy, it's not shaggy in a hipster Williamsburg just-got-out-of-bed kind of way, but more in a (still not cool, as far as I know) mullet kind of way. Their secret? They are just very, very good. What do they sound like? I could list off possible influences and possible comparisons (the Pixies, the Velvet Underground, Nilsson, Pavement, the Kinks, etc.), but playing the influences game with the King of France feels particularly futile (and besides, I suspect it all boils down to Dylan and the Beatles in the end -- everything does). In an age of overwhelmingly derivative rock music, the King of France is simply a great rock band, one that draws extensively and subtly on the great rock bands of the past without ever allowing the weight of history to overwhelm its singular vision. There are three demos available for free on their Web page, but I urge you to spend a couple dollars and hear this band at its best. Download "The Beast," "Notion" and "Sick of Life" from iTunes, all off the King of France's as-yet-untitled new record. And if you're disappointed ... ummm, blame Edward Norton. (iTunes)

"Perpetual Night," Kelley Stoltz, from "Antique Glow"
Kelley Stoltz is another relative unknown for whom I have high hopes and expectations. He recorded "Antique Glow" onto an eight-track recorder over the course of a year, playing nearly all the instruments himself, and the result is a minor masterpiece. It's a dense record, packed with layer upon layer of sound, full of psychedelic flourishes, and with constant sonic interference pulling your ears in different directions. Matters are further confused by Stoltz's shape-shifting vocals, which morph from Captain Beefheart's yawp to Nick Drake's whisper to Nick Cave's bellow, with plenty of stops in between. Buried beneath the (glorious) cacophony of sounds and styles are some really beautiful compositions, and Stoltz's odd, abstract and always poetic lyrics are worth listening for. Also grab "Jewel of the Evening" and "Underwater's Where the Action." Free Download: "Perpetual Night"

"Gonna Be Some Changes Made," Bruce Hornsby, from "Halcyon Days"
I have to admit that I have little familiarity with Bruce Hornsby's work. He's primarily entered my consciousness as a guest performer on a Bonnie Raitt live record, and with a very beautiful 15-second instrumental outro at the end of a song on Chris Whitley's "Rocket House." But this song, the first single from his upcoming "Halcyon Days," has been making me happy this week. There's the pleasure of hearing Sting singing the background vocals, with some very Police-like harmonies. And there's Hornsby's voice, which has that wholesome John Mellencamp/Tom Petty I'm-an-American-rock-star sound to it. But mostly there's the song's brilliant hook, a memorable piano line that almost stands in for a chorus. A note on the lyrics: Unless my ears deceive me, he actually sings the line "I'm going where the fields are green and I can do my macramé." I didn't know that rock stars did macramé. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Electric Halo," The Bruces, from "The Shining Path"
"The Electric Halo" is the first song I've heard by the Bruces, and I'm left wondering if all of their work is this good -- and if so, why nobody's told me about them before. The Bruces are not a proper band but rather the work of Alex McManus, a member of Lambchop and a contributor to records by a number of other Americana-inspired indie acts including Simon Joyner and Vic Chesnutt. I find this song absolutely chilling. The unexpected, uncomfortably twisted harmonies of the opening guitar part, the spooky, portentous sounds in the background, and McManus' frightened voice all combine to give the track an air of Faulknerian dread. I was so caught up in the atmosphere of it that the addition of a small horn section partway through took me completely off guard -- it's a brilliant and truly unexpected arrangement decision. I look forward to hearing more music by the Bruces. Free Download: "Electric Halo"

"Knock Me Down Girl," Slicker, from "We All Have a Plan"
This track is an odd hybrid: vocals with overt R&B mannerisms, the glitchy editing style of lap-pop, a muted trumpet straight out of easy-listening acid jazz, and a gently funky dance beat. It works beautifully. Slicker is a project by John Hughes III, son of director John Hughes II ("The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"), and he refers to his mélange as "future roots music," "where soul, jazz, hip-hop, electronics and pop are all perfectly bound together." Free Download: "Knock Me Down Girl"

By Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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