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Still Elvis after all these years

Were you to compile a career-long chart of Elvis Costello's collaborations you'd need a team of Pete Frames working flat out to catalogue the strands and diversions he's taken along the way.

Currently exploring a more traditional Americana sound with the Sugarcanes, Costello has taken in some pretty peculiar sideways steps in the time since he first emerged as a punk-era oddity on Stiff Records back in the spring of 1977.

Then a gawky-looking geek with a strange name and a penchant for delivering his sulphurous lyrics with a topical sneer, the former Declan Patrick McManus was special from the start and while debut album My Aim Is True abounded with strong tunes and dazzling wordplay the musical backing, courtesy of American country rockers Clover, didn't seem to match the ferocity or desire of the singer.

That was resolved by the end of that year when he recruited The Attractions as his backing band, and added Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums, giving him one of the distinctive sound that carried him through the purple patch of This Year's Model, Armed Forces and Get Happy!

The foray into country music on 1981's Almost Blue surprised many but yielded a Top 10 single in Good Year For The Roses. On King of America, one of his finest collections of songs, he collaborated with several members of Elvis Presley's former backing band while his friendship with T Bone Burnett gave us the pleasant if lightweight The Coward Brothers.

As the years rolled on, he teamed up with the likes of Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint, yet some of his projects have seemed most peculiar.

The desire to be seen as a "serious" artist by working with classical musicians has led many a man astray in the past -- Macca only got away with Liverpool Oratorio because very few people heard it and that forthcoming Sting thing with the London Philharmonic sounds like a night in a very painful circle of Hell -- and Costello is no exception.

The Juliet Letters, which he recorded with The Brodsky Quartet, may have sounded like an interesting project on paper but failed to convince on record while the less said about My Flame Burns Blue, a 2004 live collection with the Metropole Orkest, the better. Indeed, the whole point of the latter seems to have been the desire to have a record released on the legendary Deutsche Grammophon label.

You'll be far more entertained and enlightened by the collection of songs he wrote for Wendy James's solo album, a batch he knocked out in under a week.

Elvis Costello still has a back catalogue very few songwriters of his era can touch and is to be commended for refusing to let the grass grow under his feet -- but it's doubtful if he'll ever recall the sheer visceral power and tension of the days when he was backed by The Attractions.

Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes play Vicar Street tonight