It’s the time of year for saving money!
The Songs of Bacharach & Costello is a new multi-disc tour-de-force super deluxe edition portfolio-styled boxed set that waspersonally compiled by Elvis Costello, being released early in March. Assembling all of the published songs he wrote with one of the greatest composers of popular music of our 20th and 21st century times, Burt Bacharach, the collection explores and honors their remarkable and fruitful musical partnership.
Celebrating this collaboration which began in 1995 and continued up until Mr. Bacharach’s untimely passing this month (RIP), The Songs of Bacharach & Costello provides a much needed deep dive into the music these fine artists created together. Revolving around their critically acclaimed 1998 release Painted From Memory — newly remastered from the original analog tapes by legendary audio engineer/producer Bob Ludwig — this expansive musical journey takes us through a wealth of previously unreleased material from the studios and concert stages including pieces of an unfinished musical that was being explored.
For vinyl fans, I have reviewed the two LP set included in The Songs of Bacharach & Costello over on Analog Planet (click here for that review). This review will however traverse the four digital compact discs in more depth.
The four discs included in The Songs of Bacharach & Costello are broken up into compelling categories, effectively individual album listening experiences.
First, of course, there is Bob Ludwig’s newly remastered version of the original album, Painted From Memory. This is followed by a sequel of sorts titled Taken From Life,compiling many previously unreleased recordings crafted over the years beyond the initial album release, including material pegged for a proposed musical based on the original album. This disc includes guest performances from Cassandra Wilson, Bill Frisell, Audra Mae and others.
The archival flavored CD Because It’s A Lonely World – Live features Mr. Costello performing mostly previously unreleased material on the concert stage with his long time keyboard accompanist, Steve Nieve.
And finally, there is a lovely collection featuring Elvis covering other songs written by Burt Bacharach and his original songwriting partner Hal David, titled appropriately: Costello Sings Bacharach/David. This collection is particularly special as it includes a number of recordings from the very short exclusive tour Elvis made with Burt Bacharach (which, alas, I unfortunately was not in geographical proximity to see at the time).
All that said, lets dive in to each of the discs in The Songs of Bacharach & Costello:
Painted From Memory
The remastered CD of the original Painted From Memory album as included in this new boxed set sounds excellent as CDs go. I compared this to an original promotional release version of the album — which had the early HDCD encoding (my Oppo universal player can decode this). In general, everything sounds richer and warmer on this new edition with much more detailing apparent. In some ways, it is quite close to Mobile Fidelity’s SACD version which I own as well and in someways perhaps better given access to the latest remastering technology and the magic touch of an artist like engineer Bob Ludwig.
Taken From Life
This fantastic CD assembles musics from a proposed theatrical staging revolving around the Painted From Memory album. While the show never came to fruition (at least as of yet!) much new music was written and recorded along the ways (some of which was sprinkled out on other releases over the years). While I of course love the five tracks with backing from Elvis’ band The Imposters, Audra Mae’s recordings of “I Looked Away,” “In The Darkest Place” and most dramatically “What’s Her Name Today?” are powerful and at times heart wrenching. If you are not sure who Audra Mae is (as I wasn’t prior to this release) please do check the Wiki page (click here) for her fascinating background which includes genetic ties to no less than Judy Garland!
Cassandra Wilson & Bill Frisell’s version of the song “Painted From Memory” works much better in this context than on Frisell’s mostly instrumental album, The Sweetest Punch (where it originally appeared). While I understand the need to eliminate duplication of songs, it would have been nice for the sake of completeness to include both tracks she sang on that album (one was a duet with Elvis on “I Still Have That Other Girl”) but I guess on the flip side not including it gives us reason to hold on to our original CDs — or if you don’t own the album, seek it out — to enjoy the music in its original context! Poignantly, Taken From Life ends with Mr. Bacharach himself singing an early run through of one of the new songs, “Lie Back & Think Of England.” It is quite haunting.
Because It’s A Lonely World – Live
This discs mostly features Elvis with his career-long accompanist — and member of his original bands — Steve Nieve. While the duo had released a number of recordings from the 1996 tour, those did not feature any of the music from the Painted From Memory collaboration (there is a multi-disc boxed set available featuring EPs culled from cities where they performed).
The so called “Lonely World” tour in 1999 did, however, find them performing many of those Bacharach-Costello pieces, so this new CD gives us six tour recordings from Japan, Australia and Canada. Two tracks recorded with the The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra are also included and as icing on the cake we get to hear a fine version of “This House Is Empty Now” from Late Night with Conan O’Brien in New York City featuring Burt Bacharach himself on piano! All the recordings sound excellent despite coming from different sources and shows.
Costello Sings Bacharach/David
The final disc delivers exactly what the title promises stretching across different periods of his career. Opening with a Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune which was a 1964 UK #3 hit for Dusty Springfield, “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” Costello’s version here first appeared on the 1977 Stiff Records tour-document album called Live Stiffs, underscoring Costello’s deep connection to Mr. Bacharach’s music right from the beginning of his career. This song also closes the album sequence, taken from a performance with Mr. Bacharach recorded live at Sony Music Studios In New York City for the 1998 Sessions at West 54th television show. It is simultaneously exciting to hear just how much Elvis has grown as a performer between these two versions but it also underscores just how much he arrived on the scene ready to flower, delivering passion a-plenty in that raw early take.
Sandwiched between, Costello often pulls out all the stops delivering powerful versions of Bacharach-David classics like “Make It Easy On Yourself” and “Anyone Who Had A Heart” with Mr. Bacharach supporting him on piano.
An aside: I can only imagine the sense of excitement and pressure Costello faced each night on this tour, delivering outstanding performances on stage with — and for — the Maestro, especially as these songs are actually quite challenging.
Overall The Songs of Bacharach & Costello collection is really a wonder and a great offering from Elvis in tribute to his 25-plus year partnership with one of the greatest songwriters of our times.
Perhaps my only wishes is that all this material was presented in a high resolution archival audio format such as Blu-ray Disc (I assume it will be streaming on major services, hopefully in high-res). I would have liked to have heard this remixed into Dolby Atmos and included on a Blu-ray. I do understand that the set will be streaming in Atmos on Apple Music, which I plan to check out at some point — if it turns out to be compelling I will try to write about it from that vantage point.
In summary, I know it wasn’t necessarily intended, but The Songs of Bacharach & Costello ended up as a loving farewell to Maestro Bacharach.
But perhaps it also marks a new beginning. In some ways, this set illustrates a virtual passing the baton (if you will) on to Mr. Costello who in addition to his own exemplary career is arguably the rightful heir-apparent to help keep Bacharach’s music alive for at least several generations to come. With the original album and this new set, Elvis arguably set the modern standard for others to aspire when performing Burt Bacharach’s music. That is quite an honor (and responsibility) when you stop to think about it.
If you love Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s music, you need The Songs of Bacharach & Costello.
Rest in peace, Mr. Bacharach, and thank you for the music. And thank you Elvis for taking us all along with you on this wondrous journey.