The Legends of Laurel Canyon
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best
Transfiguration of Vincent
Christmas in the Heart
Glitter and Doom Live
Let It Roll: The Best of George Harrison
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Playing for Change
It has taken a while to remove ourselves from the synthetic squiggly synthesizers and programmed drum tracks of the late 20th century and re-develop a taste for music that is earthy and rooted in something more substantial. Lately, it seems as though everybody is discovering (or re-discovering) the roots of Americana, as can be attested by the domination of the 2009 Grammy Awards by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss.
Elvis Costello came to our attention during the punk rock era, but since then he has progressed through more stylistic shifts than Cher goes through costume changes. Indeed, it is hard to think of a style that Elvis hasn’t attempted. Being a lifelong fan, I will admit that it is sometimes trying to accept his each and every whim. At times, I wonder why I feel committed to follow his muse, even when it leads to deeper water where he is swimming well beyond his abilities as an artist. If nothing else, though, Elvis is an intrepid stylist, and his willingness to take on a project that challenges his own talent is laudable, although at times foolhardy. His new album is called “Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane,” and it signifies a somewhat predictable but welcome return to American roots music.
The roots of Americana reach back quite far, with English and Irish folk songs often supplying the basis for much of our own cultural style. Appreciation for this music didn’t really develop until the early ‘60s, when a man named Harry Smith compiled a bunch of his old 78 RPM records onto a semi-legal compilation called the “Anthology of American Folk Music.” Since its release, it has become a touchstone for artists and songwriters who long to create something more substantial than contemporary pop music. The artwork of “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” emulates Harry Smith’s collection in a number of ways, with pen and ink artwork for each track, and especially with the one line summation of the song’s meaning that appears before each lyric (example: “Former-Champion Prizefighter Discovers His Name Printed Just Above the Liquor Licensee”). The music pays homage as well, relying solely on acoustic instrumentation, including mandolin, accordion and fiddle. Mostly, though, it is the songwriting that takes on the timeless appeal of roots music, including a pair of songs that were allegedly intended for Johnny Cash, and another that Costello had co-written with Loretta Lynn (“I Felt the Chill”, with a summation stating “Inclement weather foretells of a betrayal”).
Early in his career and in the midst of the punk movement, Elvis Costello displayed a penchant for country music by recording his “Almost Blue” album in Nashville. The results were mixed at best. Since then, Costello befriended producer T-Bone Burnett, who has become ‘ground zero’ for the Americana roots movement, and their work together has always sounded lively and inspired. “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” marks their third album together, and it is easily as successful as their previous work. Burnett provides a solid backup group, sans drums, and arrangements that are uncluttered and supportive, with no stylized production tricks to distract from the songs. For his part, Costello sounds completely in charge of his muse, with songs that are tight and focused, and ought to withstand a few more decades of stylistic shifts.
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