Elvis Costello's original music used to carry more hooks than Henry Blake's fishing hat, and he ranked as one of pop music's most prolific songwriters, cranking out 17 albums (not counting a greatest hits LP) in 18 years.
But his most recent work has been a bit drab and unfocused, especially when he ventured into tedious chamber music (The Juliet Letters) and guested with old-timers like Tony Bennett on tired old lounge ballads.
So who needs a collection of covers of vintage rhythm 'n' blues songs and more tired old lounge ballads.
Costello does, apparently, since his personal fishing hole of ideas seems to have run dry.
But Kojak Variety is a pleasant surprise catch that lives up to its title. The songs he covers here span a period from 1930 (the old standard, "The Very Thought of You," made popular 20 years later by Nat King Cole) to 1970 (a jumping version of Jesse Winchester's "Payday").
In between, he pumps new life into such tunes as Willie Dixon's finger-snapping three-chord "Hidden Charms," and Little Richard's fun-loving "Bama Lama Bama Loo."
With such studio champs as James Burton, Marc Ribot, Jim Keltner and especially Larry Knechtel on Hammond organ and piano — along for the ride, Elvis also turns in fine interpretations of Holland-Dozier-Holland's obscure waltz, "Lose this Doubt," Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy," and especially fine treatments of Bob Dylan's dark rumination "I Threw It All Away" and Ray Davies' dirge-like "Days."
Until Costello pulls out another whopper of his own creation, this collection of others' tunes fills the pan nicely.