Elvis Costello

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

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Elvis Costello has spent the back half of his career flitting from style to style, recording everything from opera to R&B, but he avoided the country-folk of 1986's King of America until 2009, when he teamed up with America producer (and fellow Coward Brother) T Bone Burnett for Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. By its very definition, country-folk seems straightforward, but the only thing simple about Secret is the speed of its recording. Costello and Burnett assembled an all-star acoustic string band -- featuring Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Dennis Crouch on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and banjo, and Jim Lauderdale on vocal harmonies -- and cut the album in just three days, its swiftness similar to its knocked-out predecessor Momofuku. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane often bears its quick conception fetchingly, feeling loose-limbed and intimate, a record made simply because it's fun to play, a sentiment that can't quite be said of its songs. Surely, there are times where the humor is as riotous as those old Coward Brothers singles -- Costello and Burnett have a ball on the bawdy travelogue "Sulphur to Sugarcane" and sweetly harmonize with Emmylou Harris on "The Crooked Line" -- but Secret is frequently fussy, particularly on the songs Costello has carried over from his unfinished Hans Christian Andersen opera. The very presence of these songs ("How Deep Is the Red?," "She Was No Good," "She Handed Me a Mirror," "Red Cotton") suggests just how muddled Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is conceptually: it bounces all over the place, threading these stagebound tunes between a collaboration with Loretta Lynn and his take on "Down Among the Wine and Spirits," which he originally wrote for Ms. Loretta, a rollicking leftover from The Delivery Man ("Hidden Shame"), a cover of Bing Crosby's "Changing Partners," the Burnett co-writes, a few new songs, and a reworking of Elvis' old "Complicated Shadows." Despite the occasional stuffiness, there's a lot of good material here and it's all executed well, but it's hard not to shake the feeling that this is a collection of leftovers masquerading as a main course.

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