Elvis Costello doesn't seem to have put a great deal of thought into this album — and it's one of his best in years. On his last few records, Costello seemed painfully conscious of his own legacy. Although the albums contained some great songs, he strained to somehow equal or reprise the brilliance of his early career. But on Kojak Variety, a collection of 15 covers recorded in just two weeks, Costello is effortlessly himself.
Costello's enthusiastic liner notes express great affection for such relatively rare treasures as Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo," Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away" and Ray Davies' "Days." Costello shows his reverence by making the songs entirely his own — with assistance from a terrific band of some of his most creative longtime cohorts, comprising Pete Thomas and Jim Keltner on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, Larry Knechtel on piano and Hammond organ and James Burton and Marc Ribot on guitar.
R&B singer Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" goes rockabilly, with an incredible James Burton guitar solo and thrilling interplay between Burton and rhythm guitarist Marc Ribot. Costello turns the Louvin Brothers number "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face?" into a hymnlike R&B ballad.
The album opens with the oddest number, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "Strange," which asks the musical questions, "How many bubbles in soap?" and "How many crumbs in bread?" It closes with two of the most beautiful, the pensive "Days" and the old Aretha Franklin number "Running Out of Fools." "Fools" has lyrics as bitter as any of Costello's own and an unusual melody with Costelloesque twists and turns. (Somehow, I wouldn't be surprised to hear he was listening to this song a lot around the time of his Blood and Chocolate.)
Costello has found creative rejuvenation in cover songs before. His underrated country tribute Almost Blue was followed by the superb Imperial Bedroom. But even if Kojak Variety doesn't engender another Imperial Bedroom, it's one of Costello's best in its own right.