All This Useless Beauty

Not Rated

Writing songs for other performers brings out the best in Elvis Costello. On his latest work, Costello "covers" tunes he's penned for other artists, including the British folk singer June Tabor and ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn. Surprisingly, what could have wound up a hodgepodge or an intellectual exercise ends up the most likable and organic Costello album in years.

Perhaps because the songs, in order to be interpreted by others, had to transcend Costello's idiosyncrasies, he was free to devise some of the easiest and sturdiest melodies of his career. While Costello's last few albums chafed with self-conscious writing, these tunes come trippingly to the tongue. Likewise, they feature spare arrangements that emphasize their melodic elegance.

And Costello's singing has never been prettier. Axing all affectations, he lets the songs speak for themselves. In the process, these tracks arise as modern standards — the '90s answer to the brilliance of the old Brill Building catalog.