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Quick Spins: Reviews of CDs by Elvis Costello, Rancid and Chickenfoot

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

SECRET, PROFANE & SUGARCANE

Elvis Costello

Almost three decades have passed since Elvis Costello made his first foray into country music with 1981's "Almost Blue." An update of the soulful countrypolitan sound that producer Billy Sherrill created with George Jones and Charlie Rich, the record might have turned a generation of punks on to classic country, but it was marred by Costello's over-emoted vocals. By contrast, this T Bone Burnett-produced sequel opts for subtlety and understatement and, apart from a sluggish tempo or two, feels as effortless as its predecessor felt forced.

No small share of the credit goes to the backing musicians, a sterling cast of first-call session pros including Jerry Douglas on Dobro and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. On paper, the album's acoustic instrumentation suggests bluegrass, but as much as anything else, its shuffles and waltzes hark back to a post-World War II Nashville where distinctions between country and bluegrass had yet to exist.

Other than the set-closing cover of "Changing Partners," a hit for both Patti Page and Pee Wee King in 1954, Costello wrote or co-wrote every song, and just about all of them are graced by singer Jim Lauderdale's purling harmonies. Several tracks also feature accordion and mandolin in Cajun-style arrangements, including "The Crooked Line," which Emmylou Harris lifts with her numinous vocals. Even better, though, is "I Felt the Chill," a song written with Loretta Lynn that echoes the anguished story line of her similarly titled 1974 single, "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill."

Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes perform at Wolf Trap on June 11.

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE: "I Felt the Chill," "She Was No Good," "The Crooked Line"

LET THE DOMINOES FALL

Rancid

Between 1993 and 1995, Rancid bashed out three blistering but near-identical albums of ska-tinged punk rock. The quartet then added halfhearted country and rockabilly pastiche on 1998's "Life Won't Wait." And that was about as much as Rancid was willing to tweak its shamelessly retro aesthetic.

Rancid is at its best when it sticks to punk, though, because the band's albums drag when the tempo drops. Slower songs tend to highlight Rancid's shaky songwriting.

"Let the Dominoes Fall," Rancid's first album in six years, generally keeps things speedy. That's important when boundless energy is a band's greatest virtue.

The weakest moments on "Dominoes" trade distortion and amplification for generic acoustic twang. Rancid offers the kind of entry-level folk guitar that kills any punk band's momentum. On "Civilian Ways," enunciation-spurning singer Tim Armstrong does his best turn as a good ol' boy newly smitten with Hank Williams -- even then he sounds like a runaway Cockney orphan.

The agitated reggae lope of "I Ain't Worried" is more convincing, even if the hip-hop touches are faintly embarrassing. Many of the album's lyrics are similarly embarrassing, in which well-to-do men approaching middle age peddle stale anarchy-in-the-streets shtick.

Matt Freeman's rubbery, fleet bass playing remains the band's not-so-secret weapon. The violent virtuosity of Freeman's attack, plus a few enjoyably boneheaded choruses, add some needed punch, if not quite enough to redeem the band's endless, wearying proletarian posturing.

Rancid performs July 24 at Rams Head Live.

-- Jess Harvell

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Last One to Die," "Damnation"

CHICKENFOOT

Chickenfoot

With decades of rock-star experience among them, Chickenfoot's members should be capable of morphing into an anthem-roaring behemoth. Imagine a guitar-toting Transformer assembling, rising four stories high, thumping its chest and stomping the nearest Nickelback fan into dust.

Based on band name alone, Chickenfoot is off to a weak start. Crow's-Feet would have been a better name for 61-year-old tequila zillionaire Sammy Hagar, banished Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony, guitar mercenary Joe Satriani and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. Like nearly all supergroups, this one feels gimmicky -- from the moment you touch the nifty CD packaging. (Its cover image changes based on temperature. Whoa! Call Criss Angel!)

It would have been neater if the actual CD changed when it heated up in your player. Ominous-sounding opener "Avenida Revolucion" is a strange way to start the show. And party songs such as "Oh Yeah" are about as memorable as their titles.

It's not that this quartet doesn't rock. Satriani delivers impressive, yet mostly sterile-feeling ax histrionics. Anthony's backing vocals remind you enough of Van Halen to make you bristle at Eddie again for booting him. But as Hagar howls along energetically, few of these songs truly make you want to pound along on the steering wheel, even as sunshine on the dashboard changes that CD packaging again.

-- Michael Deeds

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Runnin' Out," "My Kinda Girl"

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