Forty years ago, before the record business became an entertainment behemoth, music publishers supplied popular singers with the material for their albums, and few regarded the end products as personal artistic statements. Today, when the vast majority of performers write their own material and pop records are combed like Joycean texts, compiling such an album isn't so simple. When a performer decides to put out a collection of nonoriginal songs, it can assume codelike significance in revealing influences, taste, sensibility and political stance.
Recently, Elvis Costello, Duran Duran, Annie Lennox and Gloria Estefan have released albums of other people's songs. Except for Mr. Costello, whose choices are largely unknown to the general public, these re-makes automatically compete with original versions of songs that radio and records have grafted onto listeners' minds.
A cover version of a song in 1995 is not the same thing as it was in 1955. The simple pop productions of the 50's have given way to the booming, reverberant soundscapes of today, in which the instrumentation and ambiance often matter as much as the melody and lyric. What would a rap or funk song be without its texture, its particular chemistry of beats, scratches, vocal inflections and sound effects?
Elvis Costello: Late-Night Jams
Mr. Costello sidesteps the problem of invidious comparisons on his album "Kojak Variety (Warner Brothers; CD and cassette) by choosing worthy older songs, most of which haven't achieved hall-of-fame status. Mr. Costello has long been known as a passionate collector of pop esoterica, and the record, which was completed two years ago and is just now being released, is an engaging demonstration of his archival dedication.
Recorded with a stellar group of musicians that includes the guitars of Marc Ribot and James Burton along with Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Kojak Variety has the informal buoyancy of a late-night jam session in a bar where the piano is out of tune and the musicians feel relaxed enough to goof around. "Strange," the opening song, is an amusing nugget of rock-and-roll surrealism that was originally on the flip side of Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You." "How many wrinkles on a pickle?" it asks. And "where do eyeballs come from?"
All the material on Kojak Variety is at least 25 years old and was gathered from many different places. There is blues ("Hidden Charms"), Motown ("Remove This Doubt"), country ("Must You Throw Dirt on My Grave?"), early 60's pop by Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("Please Stay") and Randy Newman ("I've Been Wrong Before"), a Bob Dylan gem ("I Threw It All Away") and even one smoothly executed pre-rock standard ("The Very Thought of You").
Kojak Variety is playful, understated and charged with rock-and-roll energy. The singing and the arrangements draw the material together into a broad, punkish semi-rockabilly style that fits Mr. Costello's voice perfectly. His expressive range is ultimately determined by his own raw, adenoidal singing. He sounds by turns sneering, vulnerable, desperate and enthusiastic.
Duran Duran: Reviving Old Models
If Mr. Costello's album shrewdly deflects comparisons, Duran Duran's Thank You (Capitol; CD and cassette) recklessly invites them. From Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" and the Doors' "Crystal Ship" to the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" to Public Enemy's "911 Is a Joke," the selections are heavy-duty pop milestones whose original versions are virtually engraved on pop culture.
The models for Thank You are 1970's albums by David Bowie (Pin-Ups) and Bryan Ferry (These Foolish Things), in which the singers presented mannered, custom-tailored versions of favorite songs. But where Mr. Ferry and Mr. Bowie's readings oddly illuminate the material, the stiff-jointed, synthesizer-dominated arrangements on Thank You and Simon LeBon's shrill, impersonal lead vocals compress the songs and strip them of feeling.
Annie Lennox: In Search of Catharsis
Although Ms. Lennox faces a similar challenge on Medusa (Arista; CD and cassette), this 10-song collection includes several worthy obscurities. A subtle stylist with a first-rate voice, Ms. Lennox conveys a powerful tension between a strait-laced reserve and a quivering vulnerability.
Soul-styled belting provides Ms. Lennox with the best resolution to this tug of war. In Medusa's best numbers — Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain" and the Persuaders' "Thin Line Between Love and Hate" — her performances evoke the emotional journey of a high-strung pop esthete searching for musical catharsis.
Several of her remakes, however, cannot compete with the originals. The biggest disappointment is a tinkly, trifling decorator version of Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale."
Gloria Estefan: Recycled Confections
Ms. Estefan's Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (Epic; CD and cassette) makes the disastrous mistake of confusing disposable pop confections from the 50's, 60's and 70's with genuine popular standards. Her soothingly attractive voice only brings out the underlying vacuity of vintage pop songs like "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me," "Everlasting Love" and "Traces." The album's plush but bland arrangements, which loosely copy those of the original hits, call further attention to the absence the idiosyncratic spark that made the prototype a hit.
If these albums teach a lesson in pop recycling, it is not to try to copy the past but to reinvent it in highly personal terms. Unless the urge is there, don't bother.