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- Posted on Oct 26th 2010 11:30AM by Jenny Charlesworth
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The release of 'National Ransom' is a celebratory occasion for Elvis Costello, but the bespectacked Brit is also feeling a tad "bewildered" about the whole affair.
Costello has no reason to doubt the allegiance of his longtime fans when it comes to snapping up his latest album when it's released this week. Nor is the musical maven second-guessing the lively album art; the greedy fox making off with a satchel of greenbacks is perfectly on point.
So what's causing Costello's consternation? He's shocked by music critics en masse describing 'National Ransom' as "bluegrass."
"It must be said by people who have never heard any bluegrass before," Costello tells Spinner. "When people are looking for a shortened way to describe things, they hear a fiddle and dobro and a mandolin -- and those instruments are common to bluegrass -- so they assume that's what you're doing."
"I mean, certainly the last record [2009's 'Secret, Profane & Sugarcane'] was predominately a string band record," he continues, trying to rationalize how the incorrect genre descriptor came about. "There actually weren't very many bluegrass songs on that record either, though. They were mostly my compositions, a couple of co-compositions and a Bing Crosby song -- Bing Crosby wasn't famous for doing any bluegrass music either, you know?"
When it comes to sonic touchstones on the T. Bone Brunett-produced disc, Costello is all too happy set the record straight.
"I don't think you'll get in any arguments for the fact that rhythms on this record -- things like 'The Spell That You Cast' and 'Stations of the Cross,' which is a very sort of serious and emotional song, and 'Church Underground' -- have more to do with R&B and gospel music than they ever had to do with bluegrass," he says. "Where you get the musical root from is not really so important as what you do with it when you get it."
"I don't want anybody to sort of buy this record thinking they're going to hear some hot bluegrass played," he adds. "They should buy a Ralph Stanley record. But if they want to hear my songs, played with these great musicians who have played all sorts of different music -- people like Stuart Duncan can break your heart with one phrase of the fiddle, play pure and absolutely the best tone you can imagine, but he's also not afraid to put his fiddle through a fuzzbox, if that's what's needed -- then great."
Costello takes every opportunity to sing the praise of Duncan and the other players who helped bring his latest opus to life. Given his awe-inspiring discography, the singer-songwriter has every right to spend hours rattling off his own personal achievements on this record, and others, but prefers to discuss group dynamics and make clear that the musicians attached to 'National Ransom' are his colleagues, not hired hands.
"I had all these great musicians," he says, "and I knew the songs I had were tall tales I wanted to tell -- they felt like something to me -- and I just wanted to see what happened when we combined these things, and I believe some magic happened."
"I don't really set myself objectives [going into the studio]," he adds. "It makes me sound like a general with a map, pushing little models of tanks and banjos and guitars..."
Costello admits taking that leap of faith would have been much harder had there been less seasoned musicians in the studio, which would have robbed the disc of some of his most cherished parts.
"If you know what you want to hear, then, of course you don't get that great surprise, that beautiful expressive response to something you've sung that you couldn't have written down and you couldn't have allowed for," says Costello. "It's something surprising that's thrilling like Marc [Ribot]'s guitar on 'National Ransom' or [guitarist] Jerry Douglas' lines on 'That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving,' or the fiddle on 'Dr. Watson, [I Presume]', you know?
"There's things that stick in my mind when I hear the record that I never could have asked them to do -- they had to feel it, and then play it."