Although widely respected as a songwriter, some of Elvis Costello's best performances have come in covering other writers' material, from Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" to any number of obscure country tunes (a favorite: "Psycho").
The oddly named Kojak Variety is nothing but cover songs, performed with his great touring band of the early '90s, which included everyone from nouveau guitarst Marc Ribot to classic Elvis picker James Burton, with Jim Keltner, Jerry Scheff, Larry Knechtel and Pete Thomas along for the ride.
He recorded these songs over two weeks in Barbados in 1990, and tapes of them have circulated among bootleggers for years as The Great Lost Elvis Album.
While its aims are simple, Kojak Variety really is a pleasure to hear, especially after some recent solo albums that were dense and difficult, and an unusual foray into classical music.
Costello's own liner notes, which have become the most charming part of an ongoing reissue series, explain here that the songs are the result of his own record collecting. So we find an unusual Screaming Jay Hawkins B-side ("Strange," which begins the 15-track session with a false start), an unknown Little Richard ("Bama Lama Bama Lou") and a take of "Leave My Kitten Alone," itself based on a bootleg Beatles version.
The setting and performances are relaxed and inventive. Among them are a throbbing version of the standard "The Very Thought of You" and an intense version of the Kinks' "Days," which previously appeared on a Wim Wenders soundtrack.