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Elvis CostelloElvis Costello, When I Was Cruel (Island 2002) - After wandering the wilderness for the past decade, Elvis Costello returns with a wonderful new recording for a new label. When I Was King will make you forgive the missteps of The Brodsky Quartet or Kojak Variety or his collaboration with Burt Bacharach.

Not that I have anything against Burt Bacharach - he wrote some great songs. It's just that it seemed like such a copout for Elvis Costello, the inscrutable, acerbic rocker, to be working with Mr. Sophistication.

Elvis CostelloCostello is now age 47, and has some 25 albums to his credit. Costello is married to Cait O'Riordan, ten years his junior and the former bass player for the Pogues.

The band on When I Was Cruel features Elvis Costello on guitars and vocals, Steve Nieve on keyboards, Davey Faragher (from the Ally McBeal band) on bass, and original Attraction drummer Pete Thomas. A discordant horn section was added on three tracks during subsequent sessions in New York City.

The music runs deep in Costello's veins, as he comments that, "Music's been the family vocation for four generations. My granddad played trumpet on ocean liners and in silent movie cinema orchestras. My dad played trumpet in a dance band." Costello's son, Matthew (age 27), is also a musician.

Elvis CostelloCostello's introduction to music came early on. "One time, my dad gave me a stack of albums he'd been listening to: Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, Charlie Mingus' Oh Yeah, a Marvin Gaye & Tammie Terrell record, and the first Butterfield Blues Band album. In one go. I was exposed to more records than any one boy deserves."

Costello says he has moved beyond his "angry young man" persona, commenting "You can't completely leave everything behind, because people will remind you of it. But for me, I left that game behind years ago. I don't really have an ambition for fame. I was out of that game in 1979."

Elvis CostelloCostello seems happy in his marriage, saying that the song "'My Little Blue Window' is a note of thanks for someone who comes and redirects your gaze away from the melancholy view. I definitely need that. I'm naturally inclined to the melancholy side of things."

Costello has appeared on many stages, including shared bills with Bob Dylan. He recalls a show from July 1999 - "That's my favorite show I've ever seen Bob do. He did a lot of unusual songs, like 'Boots of Spanish Leather.' There were a couple of young girls up front flirting with him outrageously, and I think it had a very positive effect on the show."

Elvis CostelloCostello's songs continue to be discovered, and have been included in two episodes of The Sopranos. Says the singer, "I remember when The Sopranos used 'Complicated Shadows' in the first season, and then 'High Fidelity' - they used songs to actually extend the drama, rather than just sticking a fashionable ballad at the end of the film."

So what of the music? The album opens with the catchy "45," which announces that Costello has returned to his word-play roots. But have no fear - there's plenty of bashing rock 'n' roll, including "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" and "Daddy Can I Turn This?"

Elvis CostelloAdds Costello, "The songs were written with a Silvertone electric guitar, a 15-watt amplifier and kid's beatbox with big orange buttons. After singing so many ballads in the last few years, it was time for a rowdy rhythm record."

The horns show up on "15 Petals," with a twisting rhythm. Costello takes a turn with the tremolo guitar on "When I Was Cruel No. 2" (clocking in at a full seven minutes) and ". . . Dust." And there are his unmistakable ballads, "Tart."

Yet the highlight of the album is stuck right in the middle - "Dust 2 . . ." Right in the middle of the album, Costello shifts into songs that could have come straight from the Imperial Bedroom sessions. "Dust 2 . . ." is the best, most playable, most impassioned song that Costello has released in at least fifteen years.

Cruel SmileAs a companion piece, Costello released Cruel Smile, which contains studio alternates and live tracks such as "Almost Blue," a rewarding take on "Spooky Girlfriend" (recorded live at radio station KFOG in San Francisco), and the mixed "Watching the Detectives/My Funny Valentine."

Here's the rub with Cruel Smile. I paid for it. I would have gladly purchased it as a bootleg. Smart marketing. But this bitch won't play on my new computer. Windows Media Player won't recognize it. Instead, all I get is some Macromedia crap. Does this piss me off? You be the judge.

Costello makes up for a lot of lost time on When I Was Cruel. If you had written him off (as had many), expect to be pleasantly rewarded.

KansasKansas, Point of Know Return (Epic/Legacy 1997-2002) - Twenty-five years have passed since the boys from Topeka released their breakout album, Point of No Return. Continuing a reissue campaign that began with Masque and Left Overture, the reissue package includes two bonus tracks: a live version of the "Sparks of the Tempest" and a re-mix of "Portrait (He Knew)".

Point Of Know Return finds Kansas mixing progressive rock with a big arena sound. For its fifth album, the band included Kerry Livgren guitarist, Steve Walsh on vocals and keyboards, Phil Ehart on drums, Rich Williams on guitars, Dave Hope on bass, and Robby Steinhardt on violins and vocals.

The band scored with two big singles: "Point of Know Return" and the anthem, "Dust in The Wind." (Curiously, this song was banned on some radio stations after the Sept. 11 bombings.)

KansasProducer Jeff Glixman (who was also on board for the re-mastering) held the group together during their work at the secluded Studio in the Country in the Louisiana Bayou. The sessions leading to Point of Know Return were tumultuous, as Steve Walsh briefly departed the group, having announced a surprise decision to start a solo career.

Recalls Phil Ehart, "There was a lot of money coming in and a lot of people telling us how great we were, and some of the guys started listening to it and believing it. Steve's leaving was probably the low point of Point of No Return. We thought, 'We just busted our asses for the last ten years to get to this point and you're going to do what?'

Admittedly, some of the prog-rock samplings haven't held up (such as "The Spider"). But the radio hits, such as "Dust in the Wind," remain impressive.

Says Kerry Livgren, "The tune put us places we have never been before. It was a dream hit for the record company in that they could put it in all these different formats from easy listening to country to rock, they all played it."

The hits hold up, and Point of Know Return remains a 70s standard.

- Randy Krbechek © 2003

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