Unplugged albums are boring. Ditto for live albums and greatest hits. Their only purpose is to fill the space between studio albums. Or worse, to cash in yet again on a hit single. They are the closest that music can come to being a pure commodity.
But a burgeoning trend has appeared that may yet save the concept of the compilation album.
The The did it with Hank Williams on Hanky Panky. Clapton did it with the blues on From The Cradle. The idea is that the artist goes back to his roots to re-record the songs that have influenced/interested him. Such a project is invariably revealing — a hermeneutic prod provided by the artist himself.
On Kojak Variety, Elvis Costello happily continues this fledgling tradition. With his nasally tenor and his preternatural cool, Costello delivers cover versions of various blues, R & B, and Rock & Roll cuts — a few classics, but mostly b-sides — spanning the four decades from 1930 to 1970. The artists to whom he pays tribute are as diverse as Howlin' Wolf, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Davies.
An old Screaming Jay Hawkins b-side entitled "Strange," on which guitarist James Burton twangs a delightfully out-of-key solo, sets the tone for the album. Other stand-outs include bluesy versions of Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms" and Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone." Costello also rips through Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo," perhaps the album's finest moment.
He obviously feels comfortable with the old rockers. Original Costello classics like "Oliver's Army," "Pump It Up," or even newer tunes like "Thirteen Steps" would also be right at home on this record. If Kojak Variety has a flaw, however, it is that there are too many ballads, too few of the more up-beat grooves.
Elvis Costello is one of those interesting figures who (along with David Bowie, The Police, Peter Gabriel, et al.) gets extensive radio play on both AOR (album-oriented radio) and modern rock formats. Kojak Variety gives some insight as to why. With his instantly-recognizable style, and extensive liner notes, Costello creates a new whole out of old parts. He does more than rehash. He renews. His genius lies in his ability to win over Rock & Roll purists and indie kids alike, to blur the lines between classic and modern rock.