MGF Reviews Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Hear Music (6/2/09)
Bluegrass / Folk-Rock

If you’re not a fan of old-school bluegrass or country & western music, then Elvis Costello’s newest album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, probably won’t be accepted in your CD collection’s neighborhood. Recorded by Mike Piersante at Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studio, the album was produced by T-Bone Burnett during a short, three-day session. Ya hear that Metallica? Three days… not three years.

This new collection of songs is most definitely an acquired taste due to it not really being a “true” Costello record. Stripped-down and mostly acoustic, you’ll find it’s the “southern” sound that takes the most time getting used to. There is a lot of fiddle, double-bass, dobro and mandolin to be heard (or dealt with, so to speak) on these tracks, but also some pretty decent electric-guitar passages played by T-Bone. However, Costello still delivers vocally. And one thing for sure is that lyrically, he keeps the common silliness of country music’s wordplay out of the mix, as you’ll hear vintage Elvis Costello in every chorus and verse.

Other collaborators on Sugarcane include Emmylou Harris (vocals on “The Crooked Line”) and Loretta Lynn (co-writer on “I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came”), while Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale” gets a reworking as well. Most of the tunes on the album are pretty mellow as expected, and the arrangements are predictable as well.

But, it’s the little things for which an artist of Costello’s caliber is known, that keeps an album of acoustic country songs somewhat interesting. A highlight that can be found here is “My All Time Doll”, which features some funky mandolin playing and sharp-tongued lyrics. “Sulphur to Sugarcane”, easily the best track in the set, features Costello crooning to an upbeat shuffle, matched by comical verses about loose American women. The two aforementioned collaborations are also very good, though the Lou Reed cover falls flat. “Downbeat”, “melancholy” and “fiddles” are three words that best sum up Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.

The artwork that comes with the eco-friendly cardboard packaging is very cool, with every song having a black-and-white sketch above each individual lyric page. At the bottom of these pages, the musicians’ names and the instruments they play are listed. Gibson must have specially supplied Costello’s guitars, because not only is their name listed with the players’, but so is the model number. It’s a shameless example of 21st century commercialism, but pretty neat to a fellow musician wanting to know how to get a particular sound.

Overall, this is an album that definitely deserves a listen, in order to make up your own selective mind. If you can get past the fact that it’s a country record, then you will have no problem accepting it as an Elvis Costello record.