- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

An eye-catching red sticker on the new Elvis Costello CD promises the "first LOUD album since 199?" It's a well-placed question mark, because Mr. Costello (Declan MacManus) has kept fans guessing about a return to his acid-tongued rock roots. He has spent the past decade challenging himself to create excellent music with partners as diverse as the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach and the Swedish Symphony Orchestra.

The sticker isn't just a clever marketing ploy. "When I Was Cruel" offers redemption to those who parted ways with Mr. Costello during his years of innovation and image remaking. In late April, that pent-up demand for rousing guitars and prickly lyrics propelled the album to the 20th spot on Billboard magazine's charts during its first week. Mr. Costello had never placed so high in his 25-year recording career.

He'll bring the 15-song triumph to Wolf Trap's Filene Center on Sunday. No one is expecting the "angry young man" of his early career, especially after the lavish productions of recent years. But "When I Was Cruel" elicits a cathartic rush of nostalgia on the first track, "45," an ode to music overall and in particular to the shiny black vinyl that first delivered Mr. Costello's songs to record players all over the world.

He and the Imposters get cranky on "Daddy Can I Turn This?" He practically spits out the consonants during such lines as "Is anybody acting your age?/You got a girl you keep in a cage/You give her presents after a while/A birthday cake containing a file."

"When I Was Cruel" succeeds on the strength of its many layers, from distorted guitar to lush vibraphone, careening horns to earthy organ. Mr. Costello's vivid poetry splashes color across every stanza. The deliberately paced "Tart" begins, "Hear silver trumpets will trill in Arabic streets of Seville/Oranges roll in the gutter/And you pick them up/And peel back the skin/To the red fruit within."

He uses words like a scalpel to eviscerate the trophy girlfriend and her shallow man in "Episode of Blonde": "A tornado dropped a funnel cloud with 20 tons of rain/Though she had the attention span of warm cellophane/Her lovers fell like skittle in a 10-pin bowling lane/But nothing could compare with that explosion of fame."

Yes, Mr. Costello is back, cruel as ever.

•••

Much has changed for the Swedish garage rockers of the Hives since the band's visit to the Black Cat earlier this year.

For starters, its contribution to the "Spider-Man" soundtrack, "Hate to Say I Told You So," landed on the playlists of rock radio stations across the United States and a major label just re-released the Hives' most recent album.

The group will headline the Black Cat's show Saturday instead of filling an opening slot. It will be the type of night when core fans and new admirers jostle for space to watch five guys navigating that precarious path to mainstream acclaim.

In their minds, the musicians know what's at stake, but head games go out the window when their set begins. This is vintage, primal rock 'n' roll; there's nothing pureed or focus-group-tested here. These guys work hard to sound so reckless, but they have stuffed a cleverly crafted hook into each blazing song on "Veni Vidi Vicious," a 2-year-old record that's fresher than most albums released during the past month.

There's no use attempting to analyze the body's reaction to the collection of invigorating tracks on the raucous disc. Pounding drums connect with the brain stem, triggering fuzzy, long-buried memories of such ridiculous dances as the swim and the mashed potato. Listeners' ears drink in the buzzing guitars and tear-down-the-walls vocals of "Howlin'" Pelle Almqvist. Themes blur and references to "atomic tricks," "sadistic joy" and "secret handshakes" zoom by as the studio microphone struggles to pick up Mr. Almqvist's every word.

Is he yelling "outsmarted" or "house party"? What difference does it make? No one's worried about lyrical content when the music's so hot. The group catches its breath on a remake of "Find Another Girl," a slow-burning charmer that finds our narrator seeking words of advice from his dear mother after a tough breakup.

In the hunt for an explosive group that could catch on with fans of the Strokes and White Stripes, two bands that wrap established rock styles in new packages, Warner Bros. Records reissued "Veni Vidi Vicious" on its Sire Records imprint. The buzz was building before Warner Bros.' involvement, and now the Hives, already huge stars in their native Sweden, get a much-deserved shot at fame around the world.


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