It's unlikely that Elvis Costello will ever sing the theme to a television show, and I'm thankful for that in more ways than one.
A startling genius who led the new wave attack that came rolling in after the punk explosion in the late '70s, Costello absolutely roared as a talent for the first five years of his career. But ever since he seems to have been waffling about, trying to find himself, recording everything from a country album to a set of songs accompanied by a string quartet to a series of comparatively faceless albums of his own tunes.
Nothing has sold much, but the ferocity of his early work keeps him employed and, to an extent, interesting. Costello's latest effort is something inexplicably called Elvis Costello's Kojak Variety and while it seems a praiseworthy concept, the reality just doesn't live up to the promise. Herein record collector Costello has selected 15 old, mostly obscure cuts that he's discovered over the years and recorded them with a top notch studio band.
Elvis, once a singer-songwriter-guitarist, has apparently become just a singer, forgetting that it was the fire of his songs that gave him his initial popularity. Now we're supposed to simply bask in the glory of his voice. And his crackling, clotted voice is perfectly adequate at times: He gives a serious and deserved reading to Bob Dylan s "I Threw It All Away" and throws some real energy into an old blues tunes like Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone." But when Costello tries to tackle Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo" you just want to throw a shoe at the stereo the guy can't even come close (he wisely doesn't try any of the shrieks).
And the album-closing "Days," one of the most poignant songs ever recorded by Ray Davies with the Kinks, is simply plodding. Instead of touching you it leaves you drained. It's admirable that Costello appreciates such a diverse group of songwriters everybody from Jesse Winchester to Mose Allison and Burt Bacharach and Hal David is represented here.
But there are a slew of vocalists who could have tackled these songs with sharper results. Elvis is a pretty good singer, but he's not great. Too many of these songs deserve better.
One quick note: Costello uses legendary guitarist James Burton on these sessions, as he has before. Burton was also the guitarist for the original Elvis through much of his career and has thus spanned four decades of Elvises. Nice touch. But it's not enough.
On the other hand, I guess I'd still rather hear Costello sing a theme to the Roseanne show than Rosie herself, and it's well worth checking out.