Like David Bowie's Pinups and Annie Lennox's Medusa, Kojak Variety is a collection of cover tunes, most of them obscure. They span a Screamin' Jay Hawkins novelty (that's an original twist) called "Strange"; Howlin' Wolf"s "Hidden Charms", done all jazzy with nifty brushwork by Attractions drummer Pete Thomas; a surprisingly raucous, faithful take on Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo"; and a rhythm 'n' blues recasting of the Louvin Brothers' country ballad, "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face."
Gorgeously produced by Costello and longtime associate Kevin Killen, Kojak is clearly a holding action designed to relieve Costello of coming up with new material as strong as that on 1994's Brutal Youth. Originally set for a 1991 release, it features such Costello stalwarts as guitarists James Burton (he's supernaturally funky on Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone," which also was recorded by the Beatles) and Marc Ribot (he goes wonderfully "outside" on such tunes as the Hawkins track and Randy Newman's "I've Been Wrong Before").
The tunes are not a reclamation project or a vanity affair. On the contrary, they're original renditions of songs that Costello would clearly like to assert as critical to the modern canon. Check out how Jerry Scheff's keyboards lend a Procul Harum cast to "I Threw It All Away," a Dylan tune that's usually given a wispy treatment. Listen to how Costello blackens Mose Allison's classic blues, "Everybody's Crying Mercy," stepping razorlike over Ribot's dainty, barbed guitar.
The album suggests that Costello is coming ever more into his own as a singer, whether it's the Dylan soundalike stylings of "Strange," the sweet romanticism of the Newman song or the tender, burred stylings of Ray Davies' "Days."
This may not be a major part of the Costello canon, but it's suprisingly unified and unfailingly intelligent. Consistantly listenable, its repertoire refreshing and eclectic, Kojak Variety is a hell of a keeper for a throwaway.