It's not surprising that Elvis Costello would release an album of old country-western songs, as he has on "Almost Blue" (Columbia, FC 37562). Before he took the rock 'n' roll stage name of Elvis Costello, Declan McManus played acoustic guitar and sang country music in London pubs. In his rare interviews, Costello has cited country stars Hank Williams and George Jones as his favorite artists. Costello even wrote an unabashed country weeper, "Stranger in the House," to sing as a duet with Jones.
It is surprising that Costello would make such a middle-of-the-road country album. Costello rebelled against Los Angeles commercial formulas to create stripped-down-to-basics rock 'n' roll albums. Records Yet he gladly embraces Nashville commercial formulas to create an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink country album. Instead of singing in the austere Willie Nelson style for which he's suited, Costello tries to sing in the ornate George Jones style for which he's not. Costello works against his best instincts and produces the first disappointing album of his career. "Almost Blue" is not revealing the way Bob Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" was, but is indulgent the way Dylan's "Self-Portrait" was.
For the first time in his career, Costello has abandoned producer Nick Lowe. He has turned instead to Jones' longtime producer, Billy Sherrill. This move is especially curious since Lowe has produced fine traditional country records for Johnny Cash and Carlene Carter, while Sherrill is largely responsible for Nashville's schmaltziest compromises.
All the album's worst tendencies are collected on the Patsy Cline hit, "Sweet Dreams." Both the music and lyrics are a string of romantic cliche's, and Sherrill reinforces them with mushy strings and wispy voices. Costello struggles ineffectively in this quicksand of schlock and drowns with the song. Even on well-written songs like the two George Jones compositions -- "Brown to Blue" and "Color of the Blues" -- Costello tries to copy previous versions rather than reinterpret them.
Despite these disappointments, "Almost Blue" does have its pleasures. Every country album must have its drinking songs, and Costello redeems Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and Charlie Rich's "Sittin' and Thinkin' " with a quick, bouncy pace and a chuckling sense of humor. The Haggard song is highlighted by a lively duet between Doobie Brother John McFee's braying pedal steel guitar and Steve Neive's rattling honky-tonk piano.
Only two songs have the slightest hint of rock 'n' roll. With a heavily echoed vocal and boogie-woogie piano, Costello & the Attractions storm through a rockabilly version of Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)" in a minute and a half. Even better is the rockabilly cult classic, the Johnny Burnette Trio's "Honey Hush," which stalks forward with pumping organ, jagged guitar and a nasty, nasal vocal. The two best songs, however, were written by country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Costello gives "How Much I Lied" a dramatic vocal that moves from self-pity to a more honest confession. Even more dramatic is "I'm Your Toy," which pits Neive's threatening organ against McFee's plaintive steel guitar.
A more successful attempt to revitalize old-fashioned country singing is John Anderson's "I Just Came Home to Count the Memories" (Warner Bros., BSK 3599). Like Jones at his best, Anderson can take soap opera lyrics and fill them with a huge, resonating voice that contains the real-life emotions implied by the cliche's. Anderson brings out every last aspect of a pretty melody, He can then twist a note this way for humor or that way for hurt without sacrificing the melody at all.
One of the album's best songs is a stunningly understated version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)." Backed only by Henry Strzelecki's electric bass and Fred Carter's tricky arpeggio picking on acoustic guitar, Anderson's strong, simple vocal brings out the lovely folk melody more than Dylan ever did. A touching folk melody also makes Anderson's own "When Lady Is Cloudin' Your Vision" a potential standard that singers should line up to cover. It's doubtful, though, that many will top this version.
Ronal McGown's "Stop in the Road" is bluegrass at its best. Buddy Spicher's fiddle, Bobby Thompson's banjo and Buddy Emmons' pedal steel guitar pick up a storm as Anderson's lush vocal stays right with the sharp rhythm. Alton Delmore's "Trail of Time" is an old singing cowboy tune that Anderson pulls off in the best tradition of Gene Autry.