To borrow an opening line from Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding”: Is it worth it?
That’s the question hardcore fans are asking themselves as they weigh buying “The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!!,” an extravagant boxed set priced so super-extravagantly that Costello himself took to the web to urge his flock to skip it.
Calling the package a “beautifully designed compendium” and “vivid snapshot” of his 2011 tour, Costello wrote that he was nonetheless “unable to recommend this lovely item to you as the price appears to be either a misprint or a satire. All our attempts to have this number revised have been fruitless,” he added, alluding to a dispute with Universal over pricing, before suggesting that fans buy a Louis Armstrong boxed set instead (or “steal this record,” as his Abbie Hoffman-esque headline recommended).
Indeed, maybe there should be three dollar signs instead of three exclamation points in the title: At press time, the autographed, very limited-edition set is selling on Amazon for $260.92 (although yours truly snagged a pre-order for a rock-bottom $202).
We’ve come a long way since 1981, when Tom Petty publicly battled the same corporate giant over its plans to release his “Hard Promises” LP with a list price of $9.98. (That one, the artist won.)
But if you’re as big a Costello fanatic as I am – which puts you in a different kind of 1 percent than the 1 percent who can reasonably afford the set – then the answer to that opening query is “of course” … muttered through violently gritted teeth.
However much you’re shelling out for it (or using Rapidshare to skip out on), the music therein really is spectacular and unironically merits every bit of the title’s ironic punctuation.
Hard as it is to believe, 34 years into his career, Costello has never before issued a contemporaneous live album. Until this week, if you owned a concert version of “I Want You” -- which has stood for decades as one of the most riveting experiences anyone can hope to experience in a concert hall -- you owned a bootleg. That one is finally legitimized here, not just on CD but DVD, in case you want to see up close just what level of perspiration attends a reading of rock’s bitterest eight-minute ballad.
Of course, the shows documented in this set were part of a still-ongoing tour that has Costello inviting fans to take a turn at a giant roulette wheel, then sip a cocktail on-stage or dance in a go-go cage while listening to the song their spin landed on.
As Costello says in a tour diary included in the hardback book that encases this set: “’I Want You’ came up on the first spin [at the May 12 Wiltern performance filmed for the DVD]. It certainly changes the mood to play that song in the first twenty minutes of the show.”
But Costello didn’t seem much concerned about consistency of mood at these shows, playing the huckster carnival-barker emcee one moment and singing wrenching ballads like “God Give Me Strength” or “All Grown Up” the next. Eternally full of vinegar, but also quite willing to take the piss out of himself, Costello’s a second-generation Dylan who doesn’t mind doubling on stage as a third-generation Rickles.
The CD culls tracks from both nights Costello performed at the Wiltern, while cameras were only rolling for the arguably not-quite-as-great second show. The stars certainly turned out in greater numbers on the evening documented, and not just the Bangles, who handled all the lead and backing vocals that particular night on “Tear Off Your Own Head (Doll Revolution),” a Costello song they got around to recording before he did.
If you’ve been waiting for the on-screen dancing debuts of either actress Sandra Oh or “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, you’re in luck. Both took part in the tour’s lovably gimmicky wheel gambit, then stuck around to shake a tail feather. You’d swear their appearances mean the whole random-audience-member thing was rigged, but Elvis claims in the liner notes he didn’t recognize either at the time, so maybe L.A. audiences really just are that industry-loaded.
(You say you want a review of their dancing? Fine: Weiner, after being complimented by Costello on his “beautiful orange coat,” does a sweet little slow dance with show co-hostess Katerina Valentina, who appears to be about a foot taller than the writer/producer -- on “Clubland,” which would have been a perfect soundtrack pick for “The Sopranos,” come to think of it. Sandra Oh, meanwhile, engages in some admirably uninhibited frugging with her date throughout “Everyday I Write the Book.”)
Unfortunately, the only cover choices included from the wheel’s selections are Harlan Howard’s “Busted” (on a four-song vinyl EP also included in the set) and the Stones’ “Out of Time.” In the liner notes, Costello says he couldn’t get rights to include his version of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” though there’s no mention why he didn’t throw in the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” or “Girl” or Gram Parsons’ “Wheels”… or plenty of originals from the two-and-a-half-hour Wiltern show that could and should have been included on the truncated 90-minute DVD.
But why look a gift horse in the mouth, when you’re getting close-up views of Steve Nieve playing the theremin, or Pete Thomas battering his eternally punished snare drum further into submission, or Costello digging out raucous obscurities like “Earthbound” (previously only recorded – badly -- by Wendy James) in addition to the requisite “Peace, Love and Understanding”?
Maybe because any use of the term “gift” seems inappropriate in combination with a $200-plus price tag. But even an abridged set from one of rock’s half-dozen greatest performers ensures that this collection is almost worth the risible cost of admission.
Now, excuse me while I examine my empty wallet and -- to quote the man, again -- tear off my own head.