Some pop purists consider an album of cover versions a cop-out by the performer, but I see many positives in such efforts.
Assuming the "personal faves" included on the disc come from the heart and are a bit unexpected, a set of musical pinups can go far in revealing the influences on an artist's songwriting efforts and persona.
You can also learn lots about the artist as a performer, by hearing how he or she reshapes familiar material.
Three such efforts have recently crossed our desk:
Elvis Costello first explored the covers conceit on his 1981 country music homage, Almost Blue, with mixed results. Now comes Kojak Variety (Warner Brothers) ***, actually recorded in 1991 but just released this month.
The new album is far more successful as entertainment and insight, emphasizing less familiar material and loaded with change-up pitches — from goofy rockers like Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo" to the obscure Holland Dozier Holland soul gem "Remove This Doubt," which first appeared on an unsuccessful Supremes album.
Costello shows his blues fixation with Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms" and Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy." (In his informative album notes, E.C. confesses to having learned several songs from secondary sources, in this case Bonnie Raitt.)
Costello, the son of a big-band vocalist, turns on his crooning voice with a reasonably convincing read of the 1930 pop ballad "The Very Thought of You" and a mediocre re-do of the Kinks' "Days."
He is better at country ballads — with Bob Dylan's bitter blue "I Threw It All Away" and an incredible piece of material from Bill Anderson, "Must You
Throw Dirt in My Face," that's the best find on the album.
Unifying the selections (and drawing them close to the source) are the clever wordplay and worldly wise cynicism that always have been Costello's forte, and the eccentric (verging on slaphappy) arrangements centered around crack guitarists James Burton and Marc Ribot.
Jerry Scheff, like Burton an old buddy of that other Elvis (Presley), is on bass. Larry Knechtel is on keyboards throughout, with drum duties shared by Jim Keltner and Costello's longtime drummer, Pete Thomas.
Like Almost Blue, this set underscores the limitations in Costello's rough-hewn and whiny vocals, shortcomings he normally hides in spitfire delivery of his own, self-penned material. But I think him brave and refreshing for being so revealing.
One could argue that British fop rockers Duran Duran have been creatively dead for years. So they've got nothing to lose with their reincarnation as a cover band on Thank You (Capitol) **.
Indeed, they make a pretty good case for the posture on about half the tracks. Sly Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" now goes over the top with orgiastic (as opposed to drug-induced) fury. Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" actually sounds as sweet as the sandpaper-voiced composer intended. And the lads really focus our attention on the groupie subject in Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives," lyrics badly garbled by E.C. himself.
On the downside, their take on Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay" is sacrilegiously grandiose, their slide guitar-scored "911 Is a Joke" pales next to Public Enemy's densely produced original, and "Crystal Ship" merely apes the Doors, so why bother? Also, Iggy Pop's "Success" seems to be here mostly to let Simon LeBon pine about wearing a dress.
Pick of the litter: DD's disco funk-rock instincts are perfect for the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion."
Annie Lennox has always struck me as a wonderful, heart-and-soul interpreter. There's a lot to like on her new album, Medusa (Arista) **½. But the choices are sometimes pedestrian and the arrangements too well mannered. In fact, the whole thing seems buffed to easy listening perfection — targeted to the hipper adult pop audience.
A gospel/testifying tinge serves as the set's unifier — from Al Green's "Take Me to the River" and the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You" to Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down" and Paul Simon's "Something So Right."
Biggest disappointments are Lennox's glossy takes on Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain."
Best of the bunch are the songs least burned into our collective conscious, like "No More 'I Love You's'," done originally by the Lover Speaks, and the mystical, magical "Downtown Lights," by Lennox's Scottish brethren the Blue Nile.
And the singer truly tears me apart with "Thin Line Between Love and Hate," the Persuaders' R&B hit later recut by the Pretenders.