Cover albums have become a chic cop-out for many of today's pop singers. Got writer's cramp, or writer's block? Put out a cover album. Need to make a mortgage payment? Put out a cover album.
Most of these albums — in which artists sing other people's songs — are quick-hit efforts that reek of superficiality. Very few are made with genuine integrity.
So it's a sweet surprise to hear Elvis Costello's new Kojak Variety, which came out last week. Costello is not doing this because of writer's cramp. He's a prolific songwriter who's been known to release 20-plus songs on a single album.
No, there's another reason at work here. Costello is a famed record collector who frequents thrift stores and pawn shops in search of obscure music. The word "fanatic" is not too strong. He has thus fulfilled a dream by taking a personal "greatest hits" of these favorites, singing them with an inordinate love and respect. What's more, the songs were all written between 1930 and 1970 — an unusual career move for an artist who emerged during the "new wave rock" era of the late ‘70s.
Costello's choices are dizzyingly varied, plucked from folk poet Bob Dylan, jazz iconoclast Mose Allison, bluesmen Willie Dixon and Little Willie John, country singer Bill Anderson, Motown songwriters Holland/Dozier/Holland, American expatriate Jesse Winchester, pop tunesmiths Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and rock legends Little Richard and Ray Davies.
Some of these artists are well known, but Costello eschews their better-known material in favor of more subtle, overlooked treasures. He chooses, for example, Dylan's "I Threw It All Away," an aching love song from the latter's Nashville Skyline disc. (Costello had performed it on an earlier solo tour.) He also dips into Randy Newman's songbook, but it's for the esoteric ballad "I've Been Wrong Before," which Costello first heard on a Dusty Springfield record.
How Costello discovered these songs is half the fun. He notes in an accompanying essay that he learned the Bacharach/David ballad, "Please Stay," from a record by Zoot Money & the Big Roll Band. He brings a fresh, impassioned reading to this song about a puzzled man whose exgirlfriend is hovering around him once again.
Costello discovered the playful "Strange" on the B side of a Screaming Jay Hawkins single on Roulette Records. And he unearthed D. Baker's "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man" (with the line "I guess I missed my calling, I should have been a clown") on a reissue series he found while touring Japan.
Then there's the rockabilly twang of Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo," which Costello learned from a record brought home by his dad, who sang on radio broadcasts with the Joe Loss Orchestra. And he heard Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," a bluesy jazz tune, on Bonnie Raitt's third album.
These cover songs were actually recorded several years ago with core members of the Confederates, who backed Costello on tour in the late ‘80s. They include electric/acoustic guitarist James Burton (formerly with Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris' Hot Band), bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Jim Keltner. They're augmented on many tracks by Marc Ribot (who has played with Tom Waits) and Costello's "new wave"-era drummer, Pete Thomas. Thomas and Keltner experiment with a trenchant two-drummer sound on "Leave My Kitten Alone" (which the Beatles once performed). Thomas plays snare, hi-hat and tom-tom, while Keltner plays a bass drum with a hand-held beater.
Costello's raw, idiosyncratic voice and inimitable phrasing breathes new life into each of these songs, with the exception of Holland/Dozier/ Holland's "Remove This Doubt." It's a soul tune that eludes his grasp. Otherwise, this disc is a labor of love and genius.