Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

I was looking at the upcoming dates for Costello's tour in Florida and noticed something peculiar. The show at the Florida Theater in Jacksonville on Friday, April 27, will be exactly two years since he performed at the exact same venue. It will also be two years since I met him, told him how grateful I am for his music and had my copy of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane signed by the man himself.

That 2010 concert was a thrill, it featured Costello backed by The Sugarcanes - the all-star band of acoustic musicians that provided the music for this album. I got to see Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, Jerry Douglas, Mike Compton, Jeff Taylor and Jim Lauderdale bring the record to life on stage as well as several captivating arrangements to classic Costello songs.

One of my favorite memories of that night was the exuberant performance of "Complicated Shadows," a song first recorded with the Attractions on All This Useless Beauty and turned into a country jam on this album, as the lighting turned the band into gigantic shadows as they burned through this song.

He didn't really play a lot of songs from this album, released almost a year earlier in 2009, but focused on a variety covers including "Happy" by the Rolling Stones and "Friend Of The Devil" by the Grateful Dead as well songs from his upcoming National Ransom album.

Still, I would have loved to hear "Red Cotton," possibly my favorite song from this album. It starts out as a thought that gets away from it's subject, circus founder P.T. Barnum (more on that later,) and delves into the slave trade during the 19th century without lacking contempt for the practice.

The song is one of four tracks originally written for an opera about Barnum, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and Swedish singer Jenny Lind. The fact that they appear in an album tinged with the sounds of Bluegrass and Americana alongside new recordings of old songs might lead some to see this as less of an album and more of an quirky collection of songs. But the band's musical dexterity and T Bone Burnett's production turn these diverse orphans into kindred spirits.

The themes of The Delivery Man return in this album with two songs that should have been released with that album, or at least as bonus tracks. "Hidden Shame" and "I Dreamed Of My Old Lover Last Night" were both written years before this album and could've easily derailed the album but instead they fit right in with the latter ingraining in my head the fear of speaking secrets while asleep.

"Sulphur To Sugarcane" is a somewhat lewd travelogue in the voice of a politician who seems to have bed a girl in all 50 states. It's a hilarious song to hear live, specially when he name-checks the city he's playing at.

The album ends with two sweet love songs. "The Crooked Line" is almost like a sequel to "Ring Of Fire," completely dedicated to a life-long love and how lovely that idea sounds. "Changing Partners" is a cover of a song made popular by Bing Crosby about the brief emergency when you momentarily lose your dance partner and realize that you've never want that to happen again.

This album has some detractors and it may not be one of Costello's most captivating releases but it does have its charm, from the great musicians backing Costello to the dazzling album cover by Tony Millionaire. It's easy to see yourself watching the world go by while drinking mint juleps and listening to this. I look forward to it.

Classics: "My All Time Doll," "Sulphut To Sugarcane," "The Crooked Line"

Songs I'd like to hear live: "My All Time Doll," and "Red Cotton"

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