Review: Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ “Momofuku”

Apr 23, 2008 10:38am

Until yesterday, I hadn’t bought any new vinyl in probably 20 years. In 1988 I had switched to cassettes because they were more portable.  Like many other music fans, I now see the error in my ways considering the sound quality of vinyl is superior to that of those flimsy, chewable walkman-cloggers.  In 1992 I switched to CDs and never looked back.  Why do I mention all of this? Elvis Costello decided unusually to release his new album “Momofuku” (his 24th proper one at my count) on vinyl only.  Before you longtime fans panic and worry about whether your dusty turntable has a needle that’s up to snuff, fear not.  For a mere two weeks it is available on vinyl only.  A CD version will be released on May 6th.  Plus when you buy it on vinyl, you get a code to download a digital version.  That code won’t work though until the first of May.  Thus, for a nice change of speed, I had to review this album the old fashioned way.  If you will pardon me for a moment, I’d like to say something about the medium itself.  I’d forgotten how glorious records truly are.  Sure, they are big and clunky, but as I first gazed at the immense “Momofuku” in all its purple-y goodness, I was awe-struck.  Suddenly my childhood memories of being virtually glued to my old record player came flooding back.  Sure, they are kind of a pain to turn over, but records have a strange sense of nostalgia to them.  I remember being excited as a small boy wondering what every label would look like.  (Maybe I was a strange kid in that way.)  Anyway, enough reminiscing.  You really are here because you want to know how good “Momofuku” is.  It’s excellent!  One of his best!  I don’t say that lightly, either.  It’s obvious on first listen that the reason why he decided to set the record off with an initial vinyl-only strategy was because this is a classic-level Elvis Costello record.  He surely wanted to remind his listeners of the first time they listened to “My Aim Is True” or “This Year’s Model.”  This is not Elvis Costello experimenting with his classical side.  It is an old-school Elvis Costello record with occasionally loud guitars, plenty of bile and a bit of punctuating organ here and there.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a full-tilt rock album, because it does have its softer, more reflective moments, but so do the two classics listed above.  Costello is a songwriter and he tends to like to write lyrically dense material.  Sometimes you need a softer backdrop to tell a story.  Like his 2002 masterpiece, “When I Was Cruel” and his 1994 rocker “Brutal Youth,” this album finds Costello in a very familiar comfortable place.  All the albums I have just listed each have their own distinct sound, and “Momofuku” continues that line, but the truth is, each one has showcased Costello the rock star.  (Albeit, a rock star who can write more literate rock songs than your average seething curmudgeon-y social critic.) “Momofuku” moves in waves.  It shows his stunning range well in that way.  Interestingly enough, the progression almost shifts with each record side.  The album has 12 tracks spread across 2 records.  Thus, there are 4 sides with 3 tracks per side. Side one shows him at his rocking best.  “No Hiding Place” sets the pace well as one of his most melodic rockers, delivered sweetly one moment while telling someone off the next.  Such moodiness is summed up well within the first few lines. “In the not very distant future / When everything will be free / There won’t be any cute secrets / Or any novelty.”  His tone is accusatory, telling his subject at one point “Whatever I said about you, I couldn’t say it behind your back.”  The angry man is back and he’s just as sharp as ever.  Thankfully, he hasn’t aged that much either.  It helps that the band is as tight as they’ve always been.  After all, his current band, the Imposters are really just the Attractions minus bassist Bruce Thomas.  In his place is one-time Cracker bassist Davey Faragher.  With drummer Pete Thomas pounding away and keyboardist Steve Nieve playing his Wurlitzer, it’s almost like old-times.  “American Gangster Time” begins a punked-up romp through Clubland 2008.  It starts with his subject  casing a woman offering him pills.  His descriptions are somewhat acerbic and coated in unforgiving detail.  He’s an observer but he obviously isn’t too keen on where he is.  All at once, the lyrical tone recalls both “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” and “This Year’s Girl.”  Again as the guitars get louder, his ace melody  remains indelible.  The chorus is full of good old-”Radio Radio” organ pep.  The subject changes throughout the track, but the refrain of “I’d rather go blind for speaking my mind,” proves to be his credo.  Thankfully, he has never had a problem on that front.  “Turpentine” continues the rock-show.  It goes back and forth from skim-worthy sonic murk to a grade-A, rousing chorus.  In fact, the chorus gives the track one of the most memorable melodies on the record.  Then it devolves wonderfully into a loud basher.  It’s as if Costello built up something beautiful just so he could gleefully destroy it.  Such a progression is strongly executed.  Like many others on this record, “Turpentine” features Rilo Kiley front-woman Jenny Lewis on harmony vocals and singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice playing with the band.  According to “Billboard,” this album stemmed from Costello’s work with Lewis and Rice on Lewis’ upcoming solo album.  Costello is a giant who has never been afraid to work with other people.  He has great taste in collaborators, thus it is no doubt an honor.  I’m reminded of his great work a decade or so back with Aimee Mann.  He only tends to work with the best, and on Rilo Kiley’s last album “Under the Blacklight,” Lewis proved herself worthy.  It’ll be interesting to see what their collaboration brings.  Now it is time to take a breather and turn the record over.  People used to have to do this all the time before 15,000 song ipods!  As I get up from my chair, I momentarily find that little factual nugget staggering! Side two offers the first monumental change.  “Harry Worth” does not rock.  Rather, it is a sort of slow-ish samba, tropicalia-infused number with wonderfully cheesy organ work.  It’s the kind of track you can imagine an old couple dancing to in a bright-yellow motel room.  Maybe the reason I picture a couple is because that’s exactly who the song is about.  It begins “I met them first on their wedding night.” It describes this couple’s married life, with a knowing sense of impending darkness.  (“Do you hear that noise?  Well that once was our song!”) It makes pretty clear that this couple is doomed.  In lesser hands, the song could have come off schmaltzy, but Costello gives it an appropriate amount of venom, thus counter-acting the pitch-perfect old-school back-up chorus of vocalists.  It’s a stunner with all its kitschiness intact.  “Drum & Bone” plays like a softer sequel to Costello’s hit “Monkey to Man” from his 2004 album “The Delivery Man,” even down to its rockabilly tone and references to human evolution.  It worked well the first time and it works well here again.  When I first read the title “Flutter & Wow,” I thought of Stereolab’s song “Wow & Flutter,” but the two are of course very different. Costello’s “Flutter & Wow” is a majestic attempt at a classic soul love ballad.  It’s the kind of thing Otis Redding excelled in.  Costello scores quite well. He constantly challenges himself and comes out on top. Showing his often scarce sweet and romantic side, he delivers yet another winner.  Time to switch records and begin what is effectively the third side.  “Stella Hurt” is a full-blown rock song, which initially sounds like a revved-up answer to Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady,” and then becomes a rhythmic dance number.  No wonder it is so funky, the song features drum-work from both Pete Thomas and his daughter Tennessee Thomas who drums in the buzz-worthy band the Like. Within the first few lines Costello is at his word-find best mentioning everything from “red galoshes” to “gutters full of suicides.”  By the end of the track, it becomes an interesting, angry sounding noise experiment, until very abruptly, it ends with little advance notice.  As always, such volatility is welcome.  Next is “Mr. Feathers.”  The change is tone is remarkable from one track to the next.  “Stella Hurt” is like a bunch of kids loose in the garage whereas “Mr. Feathers” is the kind of old, tin-pan alley-style number the Beatles would have maybe put on “The White Album.” “My Three Sons” is not a saxophone number. Odds are if it were to have a music video, it wouldn’t merely consist of animated toe-tapping.  Instead, it is a first rate, reflective country-tinged ballad.  Within one side, Costello has taken the playbook and thrown out any sort of formula.  This is the exact reason he still, rather consistently continues to make quality work.  Time to turn the record over again for the forth and last side.  “Song With Rose” borders on alt-country but stays mostly in the mid-tempo singer-songwriter mold.  If this were the mid-eighties, this might have been some sort of over-produced pop number on “Punch the Clock.”  Thankfully, Costello’s current taste in instrumentation is much more natural, earthy and timeless, thus the song is left alone and delivered in an unfussy way.  Stylistically this is the closest the album gets towards the softer side of Rilo Kiley.  Next is “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name is Eve,” a standout track depicting Eve about to throw-down on a woman trying to steal Adam away from her.  It’s somehow both mildly comical and sad at the same time.  It’s heartbreaking when Eve realizes she’s probably being pushed away. “In another time of life, when I was his only wife./ When I was his only bride. / Before I was torn out from his side.” On his first three albums, Costello always went out with a hit single.  “My Aim Is True” closed with “Watching the Detectives.”  “This Year’s Model” closed with “Radio Radio.”  “Armed Forces” closed with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” (That last one may have been last because it was tacked on, considering that the track was originally credited to “Nick Lowe and his Sound” and wasn’t originally supposed to be on the album.)  On “Momofuku,” Costello continues this line of single-worthy closers, with “Go Away.”  The track fades in and is built around an organ line delivered by “Farmer” Dave Scher.  It sounds like the kind of soulful organ exercise one would come up with after listening to a lot of Booker T. & the M.G.s. Here, Costello and Jenny Lewis sing together a perfect upbeat kiss-off. (“Go away! Go Away! Why don’t you go Away? Why don’t you come back, baby? Why don’t you go away?”) It would’ve been a fun Blues Brothers number.  Leaving on such an upbeat high note leaves you wanting more, almost guaranteeing immediate repeat listens.    In closing, there isn’t a weak track on “Momofuku.”  It’s Elvis Costello completely in his element.  It’s a clear five star example of a legend adding to his stack of classics.  Here’s someone who has worked for the past 31 years with no large, significant breaks, honing his craft, creating a diverse catalogue for the ages.  “Momofuku” is a worthy addition to any Elvis Costello fan’s collection.  Oh, and my guess is that you are probably wondering about the name.  In a Billboard interview posted just yesterday on their site, he claims that the album is named after Momofuku Ando, who invented the first cup noodle.  He states the album happened very easily, saying, “All we had to do to make this record was add water.”  That quote is strikingly cornball for someone who usually is so cerebral.  One could also take it with a sort of bitingly snotty, almost patronizing edge, but the truth is, Costello and his band make this album seem so wonderfully effortless, that somehow you don’t doubt him in the least, no matter what absurd thing he tells the press.  The return to vinyl makes for a surprisingly improved experience.  Perhaps Costello’s trying to make a statement in a download-obsessed world.  The physical product is getting to be almost a forgotten joy.  We must not lose it!  Perhaps there’s an off-chance he’s also trying to make it easier for some forward-thinking hip-hop producer like Danger Mouse to merge his song “American Gangster Time” with some unused Jay-Z verses.  (If that were to actually happen, that would be pretty funny!.)    I’m glad that in a week I can download the album in digital form.  I’m also glad that in two weeks it hits CD racks.  By then, I’ll probably have begun to wear out my vinyl copy.  It’s that good!

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