A brilliant songwriter himself, Elvis Costello digs deep into his record collection for Kojak Variety, a set of 15 fairly obscure songs, written and originally recorded by other people. Hardly a roots retrospective or a recasting of favorites, he carefully selects offbeat, little-known gems and lets the songcraft shine through the loose, affectionate treatment given each one by the band he especially assembled for the project.
With guitarists James Burton and Marc Ribot, Costello has attracted polar opposites — Ribot a wild-eyed modernist and Burton a stately classicist. With session aces Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Jerry Sheff on bass and Jim Keltner on drums (with longtime Costello band mate Pete Thomas alternating), the result is a tight, spare unit capable of surrounding his wide-ranging choices with the flexible contexts they need.
What makes these informal but assured treatments all the more entertaining is Costello's liner notes, written with knowledge and affection. He traces the roots of each selection in his own record collection, admitting, for instance, that he learned the Mose Allison song "Everybody's Crying Mercy" from a Bonnie Raitt record, although it was Georgie Fame who introduced him to Allison's work in the first place.
He also goes out of his way to pay tribute in the notes to some of his favorite record stores around the world, including a special note to Mill Valley's Village Music ("may be the greatest record collecting store in the world").
Costello's taste is eclectic but unerring. He can find the common thread running through Little Richard, Burt Bacharach, Nat King Cole, the Louvin Brothers and Randy Newman.
"Strange" is a Screamin' Jay Hawkins gem he discovered on the B-side of an already obscure single. "How many wrinkles in a pickle? How many hairs on a head? How many waves in the ocean? How many crumbs in bread?" go the lyrics.
Costello switches gears with ease from the despair of "I've Been Wrong Before," a Randy Newman song recorded by Dusty Springfield, to Little Richard's raucous holler, "Bama Lama Loo."
James Carr is well regarded by conoisseurs of Southern soul, but little known elsewhere. His "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man" is a hidden treasure unearthed by Costello. "Payday" will be well-known to the handful of people familiar with the 1970 debut album by singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester.
"The Very Thought of You" is one of those pop chestnuts that never seems to lose its appeal. Originally recorded by British dance band leader Ray Noble, Nat Cole made it one of his signature songs, but artists ranging from Albert King to Ricky Nelson have covered it over the years. But "Remove This Doubt" from the album The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland is a happy rediscovery, a number even Motown specialists might have difficulty recalling.
Costello fits his own style to the songs, rather than the other way around, and manages to make them his own, even when the original vocalist was someone as formidable as Aretha Franklin. But what emerges most from this laudable archaeology expedition is Costello's own passion for the music. It's contagious.