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"My Aim Is Even Truer": the Special-Editioning of Everything

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This Tuesday, Hip-O Records will release Elvis Costello's "My Aim Is
True: Deluxe Edition".

When this classic debuted in the U.K. in 1977, it delivered the goods
in just over 30 minutes -- a potent and pithy twelve songs, which
expanded to thirteen in the U.S. with the inclusion of "Watching The
Detectives". The album launched the former Declan MacManus on his
spectacular and still vital career, even earning him a Grammy
nomination for Best New Artist - although, in keeping with this
category's notoriously dicey track record (Milli Vanilli anyone?),
Costello lost to the group A Taste Of Honey. That's right, kids,
"Alison" was trumped by "Boogie Oogie Oogie".

In the intervening thirty years (holy crap, THIRTY years??), "Aim" and
the rest of the early Costello catalogue have been released and
re-released in so many formats and configurations that, when I read of
this latest reissue, I laughed out loud. This album has had more
incarnations than the Who have had farewell tours.

"My Aim Is True" was first released on vinyl and cassette -- it's even
ancient enough to have been an eight-track! In 1986 came the first
CD edition on Columbia. Rykodisc put out the first "extended" version
in 1993, enticing fans to rebuy the remastered album with the addition
of nine intriguing tracks. Rhino offered up a two-disc set in 2001,
appending four bonus cuts to the Ryko nine. Earlier this year, Hip-O
went back to basics, with just the primordial 13-song lineup in
cardboard packaging which replicated the vinyl sleeve in miniature.
And now comes the "Deluxe" edition -- 48 tracks, 26 previously
unreleased - quadrupling the number of cuts contained on that initial
U.K. collection. It's being hawked as "the most definitive version of
'My Aim Is True' yet!" Given historical precedent, I'd say the key
word there is "yet".

And I'll be damned if I'm not gonna fall for it. Again.

At least there are genuine reasons for music fans to be excited by
this supplementary material. "Aim" was recorded with musicians who
were quite literally anonymous, due to contractual obligations, and
only after the album was completed did Costello form his powerhouse
combo, the Attractions. The new live cuts will allow the
Elvis-obsessed to hear how the freshly minted Attractions applied
their legendary muscle to all but one of the "Aim" songs. Presumably
an Attractions rendition of "I'm Not Angry" remains securely in the
vaults, held in reserve for the "Ultimate, Super-Colossal,
We-Really-Mean-It-This-Time Edition" in 2012.

Thanks to his prolific output, Costello's closet has proven to be
cluttered with enough alternate arrangements, works-in-progress,
discarded song fragments and other brilliant mistakes for these
endless reissues to maintain some value and integrity. Even so, he
must be within reach of the bottom of his barrel, unless we're to be
treated to a future compilation of Elvis's answering-machine messages.

Ever since the CD revolution of the '80s, when the record labels
gorged on the profits from reselling the public albums they already
owned at twice the original price, we've been inundated with box sets
and special editions with bonus tracks designed to make us shell out
for our old favorites over and over. In most cases, the newly
discovered tracks prove the initial wisdom of leaving the recordings
buried. As a Beatles completist, I admit to buying all their
"Anthology" compilations but, of the 155 cuts sprawled across six CDs,
there's scarcely one disc's worth which adds significantly to the
band's legacy. "What's The New Mary Jane" is unlikely to have
replaced "Yesterday" or "In My Life" or "Hey Bulldog" as anyone's
favorite Beatles song, and I doubt that I've listened to any of the
discs in their entirety more than twice. And, really, it doesn't seem
to matter if this sort of material is captivating or revelatory. All
that's important is that we keep getting suckered in by the promise of
discovering the undiscovered.

The movie studios have taken the bonus-feature concept to the point of
absurdity. The Criterion Collection blazed exciting new trails during
the age of the laserdisc, offering enlightening supplementary
materials on films which merited in-depth scholarly scrutiny and
rewarded repeated viewings, from "Citizen Kane" and "8½" to "The
Graduate" and "Monty Python and The Holy Grail". Sydney Pollack's
running commentary on the Criterion edition of "Tootsie" is among the
most illuminating dissections of the Hollywood creative process which
I've ever encountered and serves as a great primer on the structure of
cinematic storytelling as well.

With the arrival of the DVD and its enormous storage capacity, the
studios absconded with the Criterion formula. Now every cinematic
turd gets the deluxe treatment - but once everything becomes
"special", then nothing is special. We can now learn more than anyone
would ever care to know about movies which barely deserved to be seen
once, complete with dawdling commentaries which reveal crucial
insights along the lines of "We shot this in Encino" or "I think it
was cloudy that day."

Even the filmmakers' uncertainty or the studio's meddling has been
contorted into a perverse sales lure. The packaging of the Robert
DeNiro/Dakota Fanning spookfest, "Hide and Seek", proudly proclaims
that the DVD includes four alternate endings! "Hey, folks, we didn't
have a clue how to end this thing. Why don't you watch these and take
your pick?"

And the California state legislature apparently passed a law that
every horror movie or raunchy comedy must now be released in an
"Unrated" version, adding further irrelevance to the brutal process of
whittling down a movie to appease the MPAA for a rating which will
only be meaningful for the three weeks which most films spend in the
purgatory of theatres on their way to eternal life on home screens.
In fact, sometimes ONLY the unrated cut is available on video, making
it impossible to purchase the often tighter, less bloated version of
the film that you enjoyed in the theatre.

In the end, it's our own fault if we keep falling for this tactic, if
"buyer's amnesia" keeps us from recalling that unreleased demos or
deleted scenes were usually unreleased or deleted for good reason.

In the case of "My Aim Is True", much of the appeal of this new
release is the chance to come to these familiar songs anew, in a
perhaps futile desire to recapture the thrill we experienced the first
time we heard them.

Which just goes to prove that old maxim - or actually the maxim which
I present here in a brand-new, digitally-remastered,
never-before-released alternative version:
"Those who remember the past are condemned to repurchase it."