We didn't know we needed it, but here it is: the first-ever Elvis Costello tribute album. And though most tribute albums serve only to make the listener nostalgic for the original, this one fares better by pairing adventuresome artists with Costello's best, if not best-known, songs. Sure, "Alison" is on here (done up all pretty-like by Vic Chesnutt and friends), but so is the more obscure gem "Riot Act" (ripped apart by Okkervil River, one of seven Austin, Texas-based bands on this compilation by new Austin label Glurp).
Perhaps the Texas influence is tough to escape, but the main impulse for many of these bands is to turn Costello's pop songs into country weepers. It's a trick that works most of the time, especially in Hem's take on "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," what may be Costello's best song and therefore tough to mangle. The smartass background vocals are absent, but the mandolin and slide guitar fill in the gaps. On the other end of this telescope is "Indoor Fireworks" by Kev Russell's Junker, steeped in warbled twang and bordering on a parody of Costello's most naked heartbreak.
Not all bands are as creative (or sacrilegious) with the tunes; some merely follow the blueprint. Fastball, perhaps the most obvious choice for Costello-styled pop, phones in a technically adept but vocally uninspired version of "Busy Bodies." Likewise, the Deathray Davies do a note-for-note remake of "Man Called Uncle" but at least put some feeling behind it. Major points go to the Damnations for being the only act to look past Elvis' 1977-86 golden era and delivering a sparse, crestfallen "Still Too Soon to Know," originally on 1994's Brutal Youth.
Of course, Almost You will be of interest to serious Costellophiles and, of course, many will grumble at the liberties taken with these songs; such is the nature of any tribute album. If nothing else, the listener will be galvanized by the strength of Costello's songs and realize that it's difficult to make useless what is inherently beautiful.