Once a heartfelt vehicle for artists looking to celebrate their roots, cover songs have deteriorated into exercises in going through the emotions.
Blame it on Michael Bolton. Blame it on the glut of tribute albums clogging the bins. Or blame it on the fact that many of the artists recording new versions of old favorites these days value their gold records more than the dusty 45s of their youth. As a result, few acts are brave enough to tackle anything that hasn't already been a proven hit.
But Elvis Costello — who still keeps his favorite singles on a special shelf in the music room of his Dublin home — has always relished interpreting little-known songs by his heroes, who range from George Gershwin to George Jones, from Bacharach and David to Sam and Dave.
In the midst of his punk-and-disorderly period, he confounded fans by releasing 1981's Almost Blue, a straight-faced country project saluting Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Loretta Lynn and others. He's unearthed such soul-music gems as Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" and the Teacher's Edition's "I Wanna Be Loved."
At age 39, this lone thriving survivor of the late-'70s British new-wave movement still writes most of his own material. But he also remains faithful to the mission of a good cover song: to introduce his fans to singers or songs they might never have found on their own in hopes that they later will seek out CDs by the original artists.
"The biggest problem with picking well-known titles is getting out of the long shadow cast by the original version," says Costello, whose Kojak Variety, a savage yet soulful collection of obscure R&B, pop and country covers spanning from 1930 to 1970, recently hit record stores.
Recorded in 1991 in Barbados during a two-week busman's holiday, Kojak Variety finds the composer of such hits as "Alison," "Everyday I Write the Book," "Accidents Will Happen" and "Veronica" tackling songs associated with Memphis soul legend James Carr ("Pouring Water on a Drowning Man"), Aretha Franklin ("Running Out of Fools"), Jesse Winchester ("Payday"), Bob Dylan ("Threw It All Away"), Mose Allison ("Everybody's Crying Mercy"), the Drifters ("Please Stay"), Screaming Jay Hawkins ("Strange") and Little Richard ("Bama Lama Bama Loo").
While the arrangements remain faithful to the originals, the band — which includes longtime collaborators Marc Ribot, Larry Knechtel, Jim Keltner, Jerry Scheff, James Burton and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas — takes some inspired liberties: "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face," a 1962 country hit for the Louvin Brothers, is lovingly mutated from a pretty waltz into a passionate R&B ballad; the Kinks' "Days" is turned into a powerful, apocalyptic dirge; and a dramatic rendition of the Supremes' "Remove This Doubt" employs a plucked piano string and banjo to re-create what Costello refers to as the surreal "Slaughter on 10th Avenue bit in the middle."
Costello's affection for cover songs started as a toddler. In the '50s, his father, Ross MacManus, was a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra, which performed live renditions of hit tunes weekly on BBC radio. Costello's initial exposure to Motown as a teenager came not from Marvin Gaye or Temptations albums but from covers by such Liverpool acts as the early Beatles and the Escorts: To this day, he says he prefers the Fab Four's version of "You Really Got a Hold on Me" to Smokey Robinson's.
"There was a period when Chuck Berry would have been unusual in recording his own songs in '56, but in '62, the Beatles started a chain reaction that meant if you didn't write your own songs, you were a freak and you didn't get signed. There's a lot of songs out there now. Everybody's writing whole new albums of songs, whether or not they have any talent as songwriters."
Kojak Variety was originally conceived as a celebratory coda to 1990's Spike tour, an opportunity for the band members — most of whom had played off and on with Costello since the 'I' Bone Burnett-produced sessions for his best album, 1986's rootsy King of America — to lie on the beach in the morning, lay down some tracks in the afternoon and hit the bars at night.
Despite the strength of the performances — which feature some of Costello's huskiest, heartiest singing — Kojak Variety wound up sitting in the vaults of Warner Bros. Records for four years, quickly building a myth as the Great Lost Elvis Costello Album. As rumors spread that Warner Bros. had rejected the project, bootlegs surfaced under such titles as Covers and The Barbados Mega-Mixes.
But Costello says that the decision to delay the release of Kojak Variety was his: After recording Mighty Like a Rose, he plunged into a heady classical collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters) in 1993 and then got swept up in the excitement of reuniting with his original band, the Attractions, on 1994's Brutal Youth.
"I suppose I would say my new songs always seem urgent to me when I write them. That's probably why this record has taken this long to get out," he says. "It never seemed that there was a gap where I wasn't involved in another project which also involved new writing."
Releasing Kojak Variety in 1995 makes sense because Costello is finishing up a musical housecleaning project that includes overseeing Rykodisc's sonically superior reissues of his 11 Columbia albums (the last two, King of America and Blood and Chocolate, will be reissued this summer).