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2010 album from the veteran British singer/songwriter. National Ransom was recorded in a total of eleven days at Sound Emporium, Nashville and Village Recorders, Los Angeles and was produced by T Bone Burnett and engineered and mixed by Michael Piersante at Electromagetic, Los Angeles. All of these songs are newly composed by Costello with the exception of "I Lost You," co-written with Jim Lauderdale and "All These Strangers," for which Costello and T Bone Burnett collaborated on the lyrics. Costello and Burnett also provide the lyrics for "My Lovely Jezebel," a Leon Russell Rock 'n' Roll tune . All members of the Imposters and Sugarcanes appear on the album along with guests Vince Gill, Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller and Leon Russell.
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A Whitman's Sampler of styles, "National Ransom" takes the listener on a sonic trip: edgy rock, New Orleans jazz, acoustic jazz, country, ballads, blues ... even a detour back to the "Attractions" days. Yes, for all you longtime Elvis fans, "Alison" could be slipped onto this disc and would blend in.
But it doesn't stop there. From the country churns ("That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving" and "I Lost You") to the Victrola waltzes ala Leon Redbone ("You Hung the Moon") Elvis' voice hasn't sounded better.
Like acoustic guitar? "A Slow Drag With Josephine" is spot on, complete with mandolins and whistling -- echoes of Ry Cooder.
"Jimmie Standing in the Rain" -- a melancholy night in the French Quarter.
"Bullets For the New-Born King" -- Which is more poetic? The lyrics or the silky acoustic guitar. You decide.
"National Ransom" is a monster step up from Elvis' previous album, "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane," which housed a lot of mediocre and forgettable tunes.
Meandering cleverly through the various genres, "National Ransom" is Elvis at what is perhaps his creative peak.
Elvis digs deep into all of his past work--his lyrics are sophisticated, humorous, touching. He shines on his melodies--catchy yet not obvious. INstrumentation is tight, and it feels like he has lived these songs for a while. Instrumentation is straightforward, but feels very full and well orchestrated.
As I listened to the album, I could feel some influence from the southern US--pickers, some jazzy chord changes, even a little dixie jazz feel in places.
Listen, if you like Elvis Costello, if you are one of the faithful who has stuck by him in all his many incarnations, then this is a no-brainer. Buy it now. If you are a relapsed fan, this is a great place to jump back in--the album is approachable, beautiful, fun, and artistically impressive. If you've never listened to Elvis Costello before, you've got a great set of treats to pick up. You're going to want to pick up some of his older albums as well, but this is a fantastic into to the quirky, fascinating, multigenre spanning talent of Elvis.
Get it. I can't wait to buy another copy to give away!
Each of the album's 16 tracks is special so I'll just pick on a few to highlight. The woozy enthralling "Stations Of The Cross", "A Slow Drag With Josephine" is acoustic Folk, "Five Small Words" is bouncy Country with quivering guitars, "Church Underground" is Bluesy Pop (with snarling vocals and guitars), the slow shuffling Jazzy "You Hung The Moon", the Folk/Blues "Dr. Watson, I Presume", the acoustic "One Bell Ringing", and the vaudeville "A Voice In The Dark".
"National Ransom" is like a well stocked jukebox which ticks all the right boxes.
I've listened to EC since the late 70s and along the way loved a lot of what he's done. And I'll always buy whatever he puts out, but sometimes I listen once and that's it.
Past "classics" (in more recent times) I think were Brutal Youth and When I Was Cruel (and yeah I even liked (a lot) the Burt Bachrach collaboration). But in recent years things like North, The Delivery Man and River in Reverse didn't grab me. But you have to give this guy respect because he's always trying to do something different on each record.
So then I gave this one a listen and after more and more listens I liked it more and more. Yeah there's a track or two you can skip over (Stations of the Cross, for example). But the melodies and especially the lyrics are great (one of the best things about his songwriting is just well-written lyrics!).
To me the most interesting aspects of this record are two things: one is that a number of tunes are really just him and an acoustic guitar (and maybe a sparse background). Things like "Bullets..." I think are great. The other is that the types of songs are very different. The first tune is a straightforward tune, a lot like things he's done in the past -- but still good and great lyrics. Then he does some things that are country -- The Part of Him You're Leaving is another great example of just a well written song and also one of my favorites. And then there's a couples of tunes that sound like they came straight out of the 1920s (30s? 40s?) songbook (e.g. Voice in the Dark) -- but I really like them as well. So it's got quite a variety of different kinds of music on it.
So this one gets a strong recommendation from me (strong enough to write this review, which I pretty much never do for any records).
Often musical genres are mashed together -- he has combined his country band (the Sugarcanes) with members of the Imposters and old friends like the eclectic jazzer Marc Ribot -- and you end up with songs like "One Bell Ringing" and "The Spell That You Cast" that make their own rules and succeed brilliantly. Oh yeah -- and then he can turn around and break your heart with a ballad like "You Hung The Moon" or "All These Strangers".... I don't think his voice has ever sounded better or more nuanced.
Somehow this incredible variety and depth hangs together and becomes a complete artistic statement. Partly this is because little common thematic strands run through most of the songs, which you only notice at first out of the corner of your eye, glinting here and there. But the more you look for them, the more you find. And if you follow the threads from the blistering opener to the bitterly ironic and deceptively jolly closer, through all this gathered imagery of love and loss, and nostalgia, and betrayal, you will be amazed. It is so easy to throw around superlatives, but I don't think there could be such a thing as too many superlatives for this disc. I've always been a big Elvis fan, but this one is, I think, in a whole new category. He might actually be a freakin' genius, after all.