|Elvis Costello :
Live with The Metropole Orkest: My Flame Burns Blue Label: Sire
At this stage of the game, it’s become a waste of breath to complain about Elvis Costello’s frequent forays outside of the pop-rock genre. It’s not like he signed a contract with his fans to stick with the same sound for his entire career, and, thus, there’s nothing that says he’s required to keep cranking out material that sounds like My Aim Is True or This Year’s Model. In other words, when he releases new albums these days, you can either embrace them for what they are, or you can offer a token sigh that it’s not what you’d call “proper Elvis” and take a pass ‘til the time comes to render judgment on another release. Those are your options; deal with it.
My Flame Burns Blue, his fourth release on the Deutsche Grammophon label, is a live album recorded with the Metropole Orkest at the 2004 North Sea Jazz Festival, and, while not in any way a continuation of the sounds he was exploring on The Delivery Man (released during the same year this concert was recorded), Costello does succeed in creating a highly listenable rock-jazz hybrid. In the liner notes, which are as in-depth as anything he penned for his reissues on Rykodisc or Rhino, Costello opens by saying, “This record may explain what I’ve been doing when I haven’t had an electric guitar in my hands,” and it does. But don’t fret and think that you’re in for another Brodsky Quartet snooze-a-long; some of this is pretty rollicking stuff.
In fact, that’s how it starts off, courtesy of “Hora Decubitus,” Costello’s adaptation of a Charles Mingus tune. From there, things immediately slow down with “Favorite Hour,” from Brutal Youth, but things are swinging again come the third track, “That’s How you Got Killed Before,” originally recorded by Dave Bartholomew but recorded by Costello in the past. (It has shown up on reissues of both King of America and Kojak Variety.) In fact, several of these tracks have been recorded by Elvis before, even though most didn’t appear on proper albums. There’s “Put Away Forbidden Playthings” and “Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue,” from the Brodsky Quartet sessions, as well as “Almost Ideal Eyes,” from the All This Beauty era (it was a B-side). In truth, the only tracks that truly fall into the category of “greatest hits” are “Clubland,” “Watching The Detectives,” and “God Give Me Strength,” the latter serving as the perfect closer; as for the other two, the club in “Clubland” definitely now specializes in jazz, and the latter…well, as my colleague David Medsker observed on ESDMusic.com, it’s been transformed into a number tailor-made for Velma Kelly in “Chicago.” Another notable highlight of the album is “Episode of Blonde,” from When I Was Cruel; it’s probably the least jazzed-up of any of the tracks, and yet it fits in perfectly amongst the crowd.
Added as a bonus is a second disc, which contains the “’Il Sogno’ Suite,” a gift which would be nicer if most of Costello’s diehard fans hadn’t already bought it upon its initial release in 2004. As it is, the suite is pleasant, but it’s only likely to sway those folks who really dug his work with the Brodsky Quartet…and, as implied above, that’s really not that significant a number.
While the idea of My Flame Burns Blue – a jazz-rock hybrid with hints of the classical – may make some fans grimace, they should give it a listen before offering final judgment. It’s a coming-together of everything Costello’s been doing over the course of the last decade or so, and, in truth, it’s the best encapsulation of his various genre explorations that one could ask for.