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Elvis and those undeniable Attractions

The latest round of Elvis Costello reissues has hit stores – a few months later than expected, but we had other things on the brain in October. And now I’m beginning to come “round to Rhino Records” way of thinking.

To refresh your memory, the label has lovingly remastered the quintessential Angry Young Man’s catalog, treating his titles to definitive double-disc packaging – the original album on one, plenty of detritus on the other.

The first batch was intended to represent the beginning, middle and end of his Columbia/Warner Bros. career – from My Aim Is True (1977) to Spike (1989) to All This Useless Beauty (1996). A sketchy theme, I still think, but that hardly mattered given the vastly improved sound quality.

The latest trio not only maintains that high standard, but the unifying idea this time makes sense, celebrating Costello’s lengthy love-hate relationship with the best backing band he ever could hope for, the Attractions.

Naturally it leads with their premiere collaboration, This Year’s Model (1978), a landmark that forever altered the landscape of the `70s singer-songwriter movement and remains the seminal selection to represent new wave’s intelligent but snotty style. Here the Attractions emerged in amphetamine-fueled form, blitzing through kiss-offs like “No Action” and “Lipstick Vogue,” neatly plowing through “Pump It Up” and “Radio, Radio,” yet also proving dexterous on subtler moments like “Little Triggers” and “Night Rally.”

It’s a frenetic monument of a record, the one that will outlive all of Costello’s heirs – which may be why I grow sick of it so easily. Mind you, the bonus disc (as is the case with all three in this bunch) offers essential listening: acoustic demos of “Green Shirt” and “Big Boys,” those we knew, but also rough versions of “You Belong to Me” and “This Year’s Girl” and “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” all of which illustrate how the quartet found its sound.

Still, I much prefer Blood & Chocolate (1986), which most days dukes it out with the crazed inebriation of Trust (1981) as my favorite. Their final album for Columbia, this was the tattered end of Costello and the Attractions’ initial run, produced once again by Nick Lowe but recorded amid an identity crisis for the author, who had resumed the use of his birth name, Declan MacManus, on the previous outing, King of America (also 1986). Subsequently, only one “B&C” cut is credited to Elvis Costello, the scathing “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” the acoustic version of which turned up ages ago as a B-side yet stupidly has been overlooked for a second time in the reissue process.

I say that track is scathing, but really the whole album is one long, spiteful rant – “a (ticked)-off 32-year-old divorce’s version of the musical blueprint with which I had begun my recording career,” Costello writes in the liner notes, which are as plentiful as the verbose verses for “Tokyo Storm Warning.”

The album isn’t all bark; it has moments of rumination, like the she’s-your-problem-now distance of “Blue Chair” and the regret of “Crimes of Paris,” and it sports his deepest I-scare-myself wallow, the epic obsession behind “I Want You.” But even within those songs there are lines so barbed they can stun from casual listen.

What’s more, the Attractions attack these 11 snarls like pit bulls set loose on fresh meat, punching the very life out of them, applying a ramshackle approach where once they had a delicate touch. Dig the bonus tracks, like an unearthed, unhinged take on “Leave My Kitten Alone,” which Costello would revisit on his spotty 1995 covers collection, Kojak Variety, or the original, hyperactive rendition of “Battered Old Bird”: It’s the sound of pent-up frustration forced into implosion.

The Attractions wouldn’t regroup until Brutal Youth (1994), the third piece in this set, though Costello admits that crediting it to them would be a mistake – half of it features Lowe on bass, not occasional foe Bruce Thomas, and a good third was recorded entirely by Costello and drummer Pete Thomas. Still, on the whole it recaptures the energetic spirit the band came to embody, and some of it – the rip through “Pony St.” offset by Steve Nieve’s majestic piano, the hearty feel of “Sulky Girl,” the soulful grandeur of “You Tripped at Every Step” – rank among their finest moments.

Taken together, it makes for a solid evaluation of their contribution to rock – and a nice reintroduction to Costello’s hard-edged nature as he readies his first proper album in six years, When I Was Cruel, due April 23.

There’s more to come of his past, and there will be another study of the Attractions’ artistry, with Get Happy!! (1980), Trust and Punch the Clock (1983) illustrating their evolution from `60s-style house band to `80s pop machine. Next, however, is a look at Costello’s most embroidered efforts – Armed Forces (1979), Imperial Bedroom (1982) and Mighty Like a Rose (1991).

Two of his greatest paired with his most wrongly maligned. Can’t wait.