When 21st century music critics refer back to the 1990s, it won't be as the era of grunge, hip-hop or even the Spice Girls/Hanson devolution, all of which seemed destined merely to provide fodder for future semi-ironic Rhino collections (Have a Shitty Day: Attitudinal Hits of the Pacific Northwest).
No, the era's most defining music-business trend has been the conglomerate album, one with a different act performing each track. Such collections are a no-brainer solution to the ongoing crisis in the record business — the inability to create any new lasting superstars, or even new perennial standbys like Dark Side of the Moon or Bat Out of Hell. The multi-act record is a shotgun fired at the fractured marketplace, hoping one of its pellets hits the target.
The approach found a commercial apotheosis of sorts with the 1996 soundtrack to Space Jam, which juxtaposed a hard-edged all-star rap summit with R. Kelly's R&B gospel schmaltz and a Steve Miller cover by Seal and sold 8 million copies. But such fan cross-pollination is not confined to soundtracks; these days, R&B acts seem obligated to appear on each others' records (hell, even Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand did it), and artists scramble to combine in group tours like Lilith and H.O.R.D.E. and Lollapalooza.
Though CD "tributes" have moved less product, it's not for lack of trying; they now warrant their own section in store racks. Thanks to tributes, we now have recordings of Eric Clapton singing Elton John, Clapton and John singing Curtis Mayfield, Liam Neeson reading Van Morrison, Bono singing Jimmie Rodgers and Cher and Meat Loaf singing Gershwin.
Occasionally these collections produce an inspired moment, like Shonen Knife's reconfiguration of the Carpenters' "Top of the World." More often, they're artistically bankrupt, as when Rod Stewart et al. re-recorded Carole King's entire Tapestry album, or country artists like Travis Tritt attempted to cross over by remaking Eagles hits. Only a precious handful have actually been unassailable albums that broadened and deepened the audience for both the subject and the acts involved, like the Grateful Dead tribute Deadicated, Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams and most of producer Hal Willner's projects, like Stay Awake (Disney) and That's the Way I Feel Now (Thelonious Monk). What separates these projects from the litter is the way they transcend the originals without desecrating them, stressing the songwriting while also allowing each interpreter's idiosyncrasy to shine.
One of the few performers to consistently deliver on tribute projects is Elvis Costello; check out his masterful "Ship of Fools" on Deadicated, or his a cappella "Full Force Gale" on No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison. And his own tossed-off collection of favorite chestnuts, Kojak Variety, showed Costello to possess the knowledge and taste of an obsessive, record-buying nerd. Now Rhino has turned the tables, assembling a collection of previously recorded Costello tunes by 21 different artists, and the result is a bracing reassessment of Costello's work.
These days there are basically two schools of thought on Costello: that he's an aged punk rocker who peaked around 1980, or that he's one of the most vibrant, thoughtful and versatile songwriters of the rock era. This collection, despite its characteristically verbose, inscrutable title and ugly cover, should help sway people toward the latter opinion. Take, for example, the two songs written for movie soundtracks: Only Costello could write both "Unwanted Number," an impeccable, peppy girl-group song about an unwanted pregnancy (from Grace of My Heart, performed by For Real) and the drunken jazz singer's depiction of soap-opera brutality "Punishing Kiss" (from Short Cuts, performed by Annie Ross.)
Only a few of the acts on Bespoke Songs qualify as household names who might help sell units: Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney and Roy Orbison. Despite the marquee potential, Linda Rondstadt's four Costello covers from the late '70s are omitted (thankfully!), but three members of Rockpile are represented: Dave Edmunds' guitar-pop hit "Girls Talk," Nick Lowe's moody "Indoor Fireworks" and Billy Bremner's throwaway "Shatterproof" (an anti-landlord screed, according to Costello's witty, trenchant liner notes). Some of the best tracks are by the least-known names; Irish torch singer Mary Coughlan's sexy-cool "Upon the Veil of Midnight Blue" and choral group Anuna's haunting, dramatic Deep Dead Blue. And the sheer range of singers — Ruben Blades, Chet Baker, Christy Moore — is a testament to Costello's genre-bending ability.
None of the songs suffers from the typical tribute fault of being a pale imitation of the original, partly because Costello has only recorded about half of them, and partly because he can't sing as beautifully as, say, Tasmin Archer. Costello admits as much in his notes about Archer's cover, "All Grown Up": "By the time I came to record it for the album Mighty Like a Rose, I had developed the odd notion that all potentially beautiful melodies should be placed under severe strain, and therefore treated it to a very harsh vocal delivery."
The songs specifically written for their singers are deftly sensitive to idiosyncrasies, but remain unmistakably Elvis, snarliness and cleverness intact. "Hidden Shame," a man complaining from his prison cell about being wrongly charged, is classic Johnny Cash, but the last verse has a plot twist that is pure Costello — the man says, "They locked me up here for the ideas in my head/They never got me for the thing I really did."
Though some of it is B-material (I could do without Italian popster Zucchero's plodding "Miss Mary"), the tunefulness, lyrical daring and stylistic variety are staggering. Even die-hard fans will be newly impressed hearing the last seven songs back to back, from Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding" to Baker's "Almost Blue." In the context of Costello's thick catalog — 300-plus songs to date — it's easy to forget how many beautiful melodies and smart lyrics he's whipped off.
Costello recently changed record labels again, and is recording an album with Burt Bacharach, to follow-up their magnificent "God Give Me Strength" from Grace of My Heart (which they reprised on TNT's — yes — TV tribute to Bacharach). Perhaps this alliance will encourage people to listen to Costello's music with a fresh appreciation for its classic pop elements, instead of just thinking of him as a punk icon trapped in amber. As this impressive sampler proves, even when he's not the one singing, Elvis' aim is still true.