Elvis Costello supposedly can listen to an unfamiliar band and, based solely on the music, correctly guess what city they're from. Such a talent is testimony to his mastery of pop music.
So is a new CD from Rhino — Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous. It's not a tribute album per se but a collection of 21 Costello compositions recorded over the past couple of decades by artists famous and obscure.
The remarkable thing about the set is the range of material and performers. There's power pop by Dave Edmunds ("Girls Talk"), Tin Pan Alley pop by For Real ("Unwanted Number"), raw country by Johnny Cash ("Hidden Shame"), art rock by Robert Wyatt ("Shipbuilding") and jazz by Chet Baker ("Almost Blue"). It's hard to believe it was all written by the same composer.
The biggest disappointment is that only one song — "Girls Talk" — is included from Costello's 1977-82 heyday when he was a New Wave pioneer. Oddly, rock and roll is one of the few genres unrepresented.
Costello's song-by-song liner notes are fun and illuminating. Roy Orbison, Ruben Blades, June Tabor and Aimee Mann are among the contributors who shine, and there are only a couple of clunkers. Most of the artists have a better voice than Costello, who will be remembered not for his singing but for his songwriting.