Leave it the Elvis Costello to find something special in the increasingly futile refuge of the all-covers album. While Annie Lennox's Medusa smacks of condescending distaste for the original forms of her well-known selections, and Duran Duran's Thank You only worsens the band's lack of currency, Kojak Variety follows the resourceful Costello on a stirring road trip through his record collection to a garden of arcane delights.
Revisiting genres he has previously explored — country, R&B, soul, standards, vintage rock and roll, Brit-pop — Costello fits his voice into a discerning set of quality tunes unearthed from the nooks and corners of his broad, deep taste, although generally low on most recognition meters (Billboard's book of Top 40 hits acknowledges only two: Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Please Stay," done by the Drifters, and Ray Noble's "the very Thought of You," as recorded by Ricky Nelson), at least some of the 14 selections might ring bells.
Even the most casual Bob Dylan fan should know "I Threw It All Away" (from Nashville Skyline); serious Beatles aficionados probably have heard some version of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone"; neither Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo" nor the Kinks' "Days" will surprise anyone reasonably familiar with their work.
Costello gives each of his downhearted selections (one segue abuts Bill Anderson's "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face" and the James Carr-popularized "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man") a spirited, sensitive reading over simple guitar-bass-drums-keyboards arrangements (some with zany guitar solos) that sound like the hasty, happy result of raw inspiration. This reverent, substantial curio puts the unmistakable Costello imprimatur on songs that he might well have written, while raising curiosity about the lesser-known originals.