- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Elvis Costello
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Hear Music

Iggy Pop
Preliminaires
Astralwerks/EMI

Recorded over just three days in a Nashville, Tenn. studio, Elvis Costello’s latest studio release is a highly literate yet easygoing tour through the byways of American country music. Despite his early identification as a punk-era rocker, Mr. Costello has a well-documented fondness for country music, dating back to his 1981 album “Almost Blue,” which featured covers of favorite artists including George Jones, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.

Mr. Costello’s affection for the idiom appears undimmed. On “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane,” his smooth baritone glides over sultry love songs, raucous hoedowns and weepy ballads alike.

Click here to listen to Elvis Costello’s “Complicated Shadows.”

The wistful “I Dreamed of My Old Lover,” sung from the point of view of a woman, communicates sentiments of longing and regret with plucked mandolin and mournful fiddle as much as through its lyrics.

The rollicking “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is an amorous cross-country tour in the mold of the old Lightnin’ Hopkins song “Women from Coast to Coast.” It riffs off a simple acoustic walking blues, with a strident double bass and a tinkle of mandolin.

“I Felt the Chill Before the Winter Came,” co-written with Loretta Lynn, is a minimalist ballad on the theme of doomed love. The lyrics seem to both parody and pay homage to country music’s tragic bent. Mr. Costello sings, “I felt the chill before the winter came/ I suffered the pain and then accepted the shame/ I will have lost your love by the end of this sad refrain.”

“Secret, Profane & Sugarcane” also contains remnants of “The Secret Songs,” an opera Mr. Costello was commissioned to write about Hans Christian Andersen, but never completed. The tracks “She Handed Me a Mirror,” “How Deep Is the Red,” “She Was No Good” and “Red Cotton” are all salvaged from that project. Of these, only “Red Cotton,” with its allusions to 19th-century anti-slavery movements, seems conspicuously out of place.

The album hangs together not because the songs resemble one another, or because they exemplify a single style, but because the consistent instrumentation makes it sound like the work of a hot country band. Producer T-Bone Burnett put together a top-notch collection of country sidemen to accompany Mr. Costello, and the small combos lend the cuts an improvisational feel, like a jug band cutting loose on a front porch.

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While the London-born Mr. Costello acquits himself credibly as an American country troubadour, the same cannot be said for Iggy Pop’s ill-fated effort to refashion himself as a torch singer on his new album “Preliminaires.” The “godfather of punk” finds himself singing in French as an homage to author Michel Houellebecq, whose novel “The Possibility of an Island” provides the inspiration for Iggy Pop’s new album, “Preliminaires.” To be fair, he only sings in French on a single track (two, if you count a reprise at the end) but his butchery of the language will astonish even those listeners with no more than a passing acquaintance with the basics of French pronunciation.

That said, it’s interesting to hear Iggy Pop sing the Dixieland stomp “I’m the King of the Dogs” — as if his classic song “I Wanna Be Your Dog” had come true. Perhaps fans of Michel Houellebecq’s novel will enjoy parsing “Preliminaires” for allusions to the source, but the music is not so compelling on its own — aside from the novelty of hearing Iggy Pop’s uncharacteristically subdued vocal style.

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