- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

When I Was Cruel
(Island Records)
Even a mad music innovator such as Elvis Costello needs a break from nonstop reinvention.
Mr. Costello, the rebellious prince of punk-turned-pop balladeer, returns to his earlier, angrier roots with "When I Was Cruel," his first rock release since 1996's "All This Useless Beauty."
"Cruel" finds the singer-songwriter building upon his encyclopedic knowledge of music and shredding elements of rock, pop, jazz and soul into 15 mostly engaging tracks.
Mr. Costello's arrangements include a multitude of horns, possibly the most since his sublime "Punch the Clock" (1983).
The most insistent instrument is his Silvertone electric guitar, which stutters and stabs at his lyrics with frazzled glee. Rarely has such an impeccably tailored lyricist tattooed his words with so much feedback.
"Cruel's" first track, "45," ties life's tender moments to music; the two are inextricably linked in Mr. Costello's wizened worldview. It's a love song to the medium itself, a charming counterpoint to the singer's diatribe of yore, "Radio, Radio."
"Bass and treble heal every hurt," he sings, serving up aching snapshots like two ex-lovers dividing their record collections.
"Spooky Girlfriend" disrobes a Hollywood svengali, its bile-filled choruses fomenting with every added swipe.
Mr. Costello, ever the brilliant wordsmith, can still pen evocative songs that mature with repetition.
In " Dust," he snarls: "Can I spit out the truth? Or would you rather just swallow a lie?"
Even his song titles bristle with wit. "Episode of Blonde," a crackling combination of spoken word and song, is as alluring as its title promises.
Mr. Costello's recent rock singles have mined his albums' inferior tracks, almost guaranteeing his downward spiral on the music charts. Not so here, as "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" blisters and burns in equal measure. It's a pleasure to hear the singer-songwriter let loose with power pop as good as any of today's multipierced alternative bands.
Too often, though, the songs mistake art for melody. The languorous "When I Was Cruel No. 2" taxes one's patience, and the two "Dust"-themed tracks could use some sonic snap. The vitriolic "Alibi" overstays its welcome.
Mr. Costello's albums rarely repeat themselves, and "Cruel" reflects an artist simultaneously embracing middle age and his "brutal youth" after collaborations with Burt Bacharach and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.
Aging gracefully and cranking up the volume, Mr. Costello proves, need not be mutually exclusive.
Christian Toto

Essential Mix
(Rhino Records)
The "Essential" DJ series has been gaining in popularity, thanks to its ability to let more casual listeners sample top artists without being forced to buy double albums or boxed sets. Big names such as Fatboy Slim, Boy George and Grandmaster Flash have had editions, but the series has moved on to highlighting rising stars.
The latest in the series features Sander Kleinenberg. He's a Dutch DJ who has become quite popular overseas but is still in the underground here. His essential mix eschews his previous love of trance for more of a hard-edged house sound, focusing on tribal beats over melodic samples.
So much emphasis on percussion makes this a great dance album but a rather dull listen on its own. A few tracks stand out simply for their cleverness, such as an ominous "flatline dub" version of Funky Green Dogs' "You Got Me (Burnin' Up)."
Overall, it's a decent compilation, more suitable for a dimly lighted, late-night party than for any kind of sittin'-by-the-CD listening. Then again, that's the intent. Derek Simmonsen

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