Elvis Costello
My Aim Is True/Spike/All This Useless Beauty
Rhino Records

Remember Rykodisc's stellar reissue series of Elvis Costello's Columbia Records-era albums that was unleashed upon the faithful in the mid-nineties? Each platter from '77 to '86 was given the royal treatment - great sound, bonus tracks, cool liner notes by Elvis himself, basically the works. What more could a Costello-phile want? Indeed, why would any company try to reissue reissues? Well, the shamelessly crass nostalgia-dealers at Rhino have purchased the rights to Costello's entire catalog (Columbia plus the late 80s-early 90s Warner Brothers albums) and are rolling out their own deluxe revue. This effort one-ups the Ryko series by adding an extra disc of rarities to each album proper, along with new, short-story-length liner notes by Costello and lyrics to each and every song overall, just enough extra stuff to make the Costello completist salivate.

So the budget-conscious buyer is faced with a quandary: Rhino's remastering is of course excellent, but is the sound quality really improved enough for a collective re-purchase? Of course, the music on this first trio of reissues (more to come, in groups of three at a time) is superb - for starters, My Aim Is True (1977) is without question one of the best debut albums in rock history. Declan MacManus' rise from anonymity is now legend: a frustrated Liverpool-bred computer programmer signs with a fledgling, upstart independent London label (Stiff Records), undergoes an ingenious name change, and deftly meshes pub rock with punk spirit on a classic set of ravers (and one crooner, "Alison") just as, 'cross the globe in Memphis, the original King bids farewell to Graceland for a rendezvous with a bloat and sequin-free afterlife.

Jumping ahead a dozen years, the solo Spike (1989), an WRFL favorite back in the day, finds Costello ditching his veteran band the Attractions and excelling in a variety of musical styles, from New Orleans piano-driven R&B ("Deep Dark Truthful Mirror") to traditional-sounding Irish folk balladry ("Any King's Shilling"). All This Useless Beauty (1996), on the other hand, is Costello's final attempt with the fractious Attractions, containing a diverse mixture of songs composed for other artists (the rockers "You Bowed Down" for Roger McGuinn and "Complicated Shadows" for Johnny Cash) and then-new Elvis originals (the typically wordy-but-cool "Little Atoms").

At the time of its release, Costello said in an interview that he was half-considering letting his catalog expire once the Ryko series ran its course and his Warners albums stopped selling. Now, of course, generations to come will be able to enjoy the career of a rock songwriter ranking second only to Dylan - and if the long-standing admirers have to kowtow to the Rhino machine and empty their pockets again for the upgrades, well that's a small price to pay. -Patrick Reed

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
Various Artists
Universal Records

The Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back soundtrack is worth at least $12.99, even if you took out every single song. Hell, it would be worth $12.99 if every song was a Lenny Kravitz/N'Sync duet of Michael Bolton's greatest hits. It's not that the songs are bad; in fact, a lot of them are very good. It's just the snippets of dialogue from the movie make the CD. Since this movie features Chris Rock, Jason Mewes, Will Ferrell and Ben Affleck, you know these bits are funny. Writing and directing your own movie allows you certain freedoms, and Kevin Smith takes advantage of this to put in some of his favorites songs on the disc. Run DMC's "Tougher than Leather" and fellow New Jersey natives Bon Jovi's "Bad Medicine" are two old school songs that really hold up. On a side note, what is up with the resurgence in Bon Jovi's popularity? One magazine just referred to them as America's Rolling Stones. Are they cool again? Is it OK to wear your Slippery When Wet t shirt to Cheapside?

Anyway, Smith also manages to pull Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum out of the witness protection program long enough to contribute a track, and new songs from Stroke 9 and Marcy's Playground round out a nice group of songs selected by Kevin Smith for the movie. There are some misses on the CD - according to the liner notes, these are the songs Miramax or the record label added - so that makes sense. The musical highlight of the soundtrack is Afroman's "Because I Got High." This is, without a doubt, the funniest song that has been played on the radio for a long time and the best part is how many different radio formats are playing it. I guess getting high knows no demographic. So, see the movie and buy the CD, because as Chris Rock might say, "This is gonna make House Party look like House Party 2!" -Kevin Faris

Sam Phillips
Fan Dance

Imagine The White Album without any hard or fast performances. It's nobody's birthday, no one gets back in the USSR. That's the blueprint for the latest effort by artsy folk-pop ice goddess Sam Phillips and producer/collaborator/spouse T-Bone Burnett. Of course this veteran duo takes these short songs far beyond a single initial concept, but their current recording and arranging fits Phillips' almost-absurd lyric choices and almost-offhand singing style like Bob & Carol finally meeting up with their Ted & Alice. Everybody oughtta be real happy with the unexpectedly fruitful union - everyone, that is, except media programmers and marketers, who will find that not a single track fits any currently applicable definition of "radio-friendly."

Casual listening to Phillips (who is now referred to as Ms. Burnett in all but the album cover) has never worked. In her previous albums, Mr. Burnett provided ever-increasing complexities in avant-garde pop twirls. With this new about-face, precise guitar notes from Marc Ribot, harmony from Gillian Welch or just a little of Van Dyke Parks' arrangement magic takes the place of multilayered keyboards or mixing-board swells. In the new austere surroundings, Phillips' odd choices take on a more consistent weight, fulfilling their promise of importance: This is one set that'll compel multiple trips to the lyric sheet to find out why one particular word stood out when the session players dropped off. "Soul Eclipse" is the closest thing to a rocker here, but the rough stuff's limited to a line of guitar feedback that's so fuzzy and remote that it might as well be drifting down the hall from another studio. Other cuts are closer to Edith Piaf guest-starring at a minimalist blues festival. Throughout are strong basic melodies setting a scene where the lyrics and the listener conspire to appreciate impressions of their conscious moment. -T.E. Lyons