Elvis Costello is a man of many tastes and many ideas. In the last few years, he's played stripped-down rock and roll with the reformed Attractions and chamber-pop music with the Brodsky Quartet. You could be rude and call him scatterbrained and unfocused, a performer who lacks the discipline to follow a clear artistic path. Or you could call him a Renaissance man. The truth, I think, lies somewhere in between. Everything Costello does, after all, has loads of integrity, even if you can't pinpoint his philosophical core. And that integrity can be seen in the latest idea to spurt from his gray matter: Kojak Variety, a collection of 15 relatively obscure cover tunes dating between 1930 and 1970.
It's clear that, at some level, Costello connects emotionally with these vintage songs. By and large, he and his crack studio band offer up respectful — one could say affectionately fawning — interpretations. Even Costello's production feels designed to pay homage to an earlier time. With few exceptions, this all adds up to some hugely satisfying work. Costello has a swinging good time on Willie Dixon's slyly suggestive "Hidden Charms"; he finds the right gruffly raucous tone on Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo" (his strained, gravelly voice lending the tune a unique texture and urgency); and he sounds a soulful chord on a delightfully pitiful version of Baker/McCormick's "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man."
One reason I like this session is Costello's obvious motivation — to shine a light on popular music's lesser-appreciated past. Under many circumstances this might seem patronizing. Not so with Costello. His respect for these songs and songwriters (they include Randy Newman, Little Willie John, Mose Allison, Ray Noble and the great team of Holland/Dozier/Holland) is pure and undiluted. This isn't the act of an artist trying to jump-start a career (Costello will leave that to Duran Duran and others), but an act of love.