Rigged up

Elvis (C.) spotted next to truck stop in reissue heaven

In the big list of country music themes, truckers probably rank just below cheaters, mamas and cowboys based on the number of tunes written about them. Truckers are perfect fodder for country songs, spending so much time alone and away from family and loved ones, transporting necessary goods across country and sharing a mutual bond with other drivers in spite of the solitary nature of the job. Whether glorified as modern-day cowboys or portrayed as socially marginalized outlaws, the risks and the isolation of the occupation make for some great storytelling.

Trucking songs have been on the charts since the '30s, and Truck Driver's Boogie: Big Rig Hits (vol. 1) 1939-1969 is a fine starting place for exploring the genre. Compiled by Diesel Only Records owner Jeremy Tepper and jointly released by several independent labels, this wonderful collection explores the first 30 years of classic trucking songs — Tepper has obviously done his homework and research.

While the 20 tracks included barely scratch the surface, the variety of themes covered gives a fairly broad sampling of what trucking songs are about. Beginning with what's considered the first trucking song, Cliff Bruner's "Truck Driver's Blues," the compilation covers a number of the essential themes that signify aspects of the profession. As the collection works through the three decades featured, the obscure tunes are complemented by a number of big hits, including Del Reeves' "Girl on the Billboard," which explores the loneliness felt by drivers (albeit in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner) and Jimmy Martin's "Widowmaker," a song that addresses the potential danger of the job.

By including both the earliest trucking songs and some of the best known, Truck Driver's Boogie justifyies the validity of the genre, and sets a pretty high standard for Volume 2.? ?

Somebody at Rhino must think Elvis Costello fans have deep pockets. Two of three discs from this second triptych of reissues have already been released twice. Continuing their spiffing up of Costello's extensive catalog, this batch captures Elvis and his Attractions at crucial career points.

Released eight years apart, 1978's This Year's Model introduced his talented, longstanding backing band; 1986's Blood & Chocolate proved to be both a return and temporary swan song for the group; and 1994's Brutal Youth was a shaky partial reconciliation that didn't last.

As for the inevitable question of whether to empty your wallet again for Model and Chocolate, the short answer is a qualified yes. By any standards, the former is a classic dose of undiluted early Elvis, combusting with twitchy sexuality and scathing anger. Its bleak outlook redefined punk's "no future" stance, fleshed out by a group as tight and jagged as the music it forged. Costello unmercifully throws the finger at media, girls and love with a spiked intensity. Spitting caustic, cynical lyrics alongside the band's firecracker approach (bolstered immeasurably by Steve Nieve's fidgety keyboards), these songs haven't lost an ounce of their sing-along venom over the decades. Half of the second disc's dozen selections are previously unreleased, but only a few — like a live cover of the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" — add appreciably to the album's edgy electric jolts.

Blood & Chocolate, which was the prolific artist's 11th release in nine years, followed his first Attraction-less recording, the critically acclaimed King of America. After missteps with the lackluster commercial sheen of Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, B&C found the reinvigorated quartet attacking a handful of straightforward songs with raw passion. A few, like the seething seven-minute "I Want You," remain some of his most frighteningly intense ruminations on strangulated relationships. Returning to the soul roots first explored on Get Happy!!, the additional disc's 15 selections (11 previously unavailable), include a rave-up version of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone," a rocking duet with Jimmy Cliff on "Seven Day Weekend" and five solo R&B demos as impassioned as anything he's released.

At almost an hour, 1994's quirky Brutal Youth is simply too long. His first album with the Attractions in the eight years since B&C, it followed the experimental classical tangent of The Juliet Letters. Looking to regain lost footing after that difficult release saw even diehard fans jumping ship, the harder-edged Youth found Costello awkwardly stuffing convoluted phrases into songs that sunk under their own weight. A handful of tracks survive relatively unscathed, but Costello's strained crooning and meandering melodies sound as stilted as his tense relationship with his old band. The 15 extra songs — most just scruffy versions of the album's tunes — are for collectors only.

Rhino's classy packaging includes bulging 28-page books with rare pics, lyrics and Costello's articulate, dry-witted liner notes. They alone are worth the (single disc) price for the committed.