Few artists have better appreciated pop's rich lineage as Elvis Costello. At a time when all the young punks were kiboshing anything pre-76, Costello was singing the praises of George Jones. While everybody was booking tickets for Grunge Central, Costello was dueting with Tony Bennett. Over the years, Costello has let the music of Country and Western, Rhythm and Blues, soul, folk, and good old fashioned Rock 'n' Roll wash over him.
Even fewer artists have articulated passion and venom better than Costello. His early blistering cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Leon Payne's chilling "Psycho," the country collection Almost Blue and the bonus tracks which beef up his already substantial albums, show that Costello has proved himself one of pops most able interpreters.
All of which mean that when Costello comes to do an album of cover versions it should be a thing of beauty.
His second such collection, Kojak Variety runs the full gamut of pop — from the Thirties band leader Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" to Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away" and from Little Richard's frenetic "Bama Lama Bama Boo" to the Supremes' "Remove This Doubt." Sadly, country get short shrift, despite Costello's seeming to have found his natural niche on 1981's Almost Blue. Ironically, country does provide the album with its best track, a heart stopping version of the Louvin Brothers' "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face." Try as he might to disguise it as an r'n'b ballad, it is Costello's pure country aching which gives the song its intimate and abiding strength.
Kojak Variety was not intended to be part of the current vogue for albums of cover versions. Recorded during 1990/91, it was actually intended as the follow up to the dismal Mighty Like A Rose. Costello had hit a particularly arid patch during the mid-1980's with Punch The Clock and Goodbye Cruel World. He bounced back with King Of America and Spike, but the early Nineties saw a meandering, a lack of direction. Kojak Variety was intended to be a stop gap — an opportunity to gain breathing space. For him the real satisfaction would come from collaborating with The Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters during 1992.
So how does the stop gap stand up five years on? Sadly, the challenge that could have been tackled has been muffed. One fundamental flaw is the obscurity of the songs chosen. What about his plan for an EP of Merseybeat covers? Or how about the songs he was performing on his 1984 solo tour? Or the Smokey Robinson medley going into "Clowntime Is Over" from the Albert Hall last summer? It is that versatility, that grasp of pop tradition, which makes Kojak Variety teeter towards the disappointing. Another flaw is that Costello has manifestly done better before. "Leave My Kitten Alone" would have sounded great five years ago, but now the Beatles' version is available on the Live At The BBC. Of all the songs Costello could have selected from Dylan's catalogue, why choose the undemanding "I Threw It All Away"?
These reservations aside, there is still much to savour here. "I've Been Wrong Before" — a Randy Newman song — benefits from a beautiful arrangement and striking vocal. James Carr's "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man" swaggers along with gusto. Elvis knows he's no Nat King Cole but he handles "The Very Thought Of You" with an affection that must bring a lump to his dear old dad's throat. His melancholy cover of the Kinks' "Days" (which was on the soundtrack of Until The End Of The World) is the celebration of the work of another great English lyricist, Ray Davies. In Costello's hands, Bacharach and David's "Please Stay" becomes one of the great pleading, bleeding ballads, and while "Running Out Of Fools" won't have Aretha Franklin losing any sleep; Elvis injects just the right intensity into Jerry Ragavoy's song.
Kojak Variety is versatile and varied. In one sense it would have been preferable if Costello had sifted these songs out as bonus tracks and B-sides, and gone back refreshed to tackle a new selection of covers from a position of strength. As it is, Kojak Variety fills in one of the missing links in Elvis Costello's recorded history. For that alone, we should welcome it with open arms and an overflowing heart.