Leave it to Elvis Costello to do the cover album thing the right way. Usually, when a pop star resorts to an album of hand-picked favorites it signals a soft spot in the artist's career, and the songs are unfailingly obvious familiar (thereby minimizing the risk of a flop).
Costello's just-released Kojak Variety is different. For one thing, he's so prolific that the album sat on the shelf for five years, waiting for a brief break in his creative output. He didn't choose a bunch of easy marks, either. The best-known song here, from a rock fan's perspective — well, it's a tossup between "I Threw It All Away," a track from Bob Dylan's countrified Nashville Skyline album, and "Days," a Kinks single from their glorious, pastoral British period (the best-known song, period, is probably Ray Noble's pop standard "The Very Thought of You"). From there, though, Kojak Variety gets really obscure.
But Costello's not just being perversely anti-commercial; he's simply picked songs that mean something to him. His choices amplify his recurring obsessions: the mutual hurt in the unending war between the sexes, a supplicant's need for reassurance that a lover won't leave or betray him, the overriding sense that love is a pitched battle that makes losers of us all. Actually, the vintage relics he's chosen could pass for lost outtakes from This Year's Model based on their titles alone: "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man," "Running Out of Fools," and "Must You Throw Dirt on My Face," a Louvin Brothers country song that he turns into a Memphis-style soul ballad by drawing out the inherent pain beneath the surface.
Another aspect of Kojak Variety that's consonant with the Costello persona is its sheer, hard-charging sense of edge-driven fun. Costello loves old blues-spined rockers like Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" (recorded but never released by the Beatles, except on bootlegs) and Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo," and he approaches them here in a style reminiscent of the old Who coinage, "maximum R&B." "Hidden Charms," a Willie Dixon number recorded by Howlin' Wolf, is taken at a shuffle tempo, with cheesy underwater organ effects enlivening the sense of some smooth-talking hepcat paying homage to his main squeeze.
The album opens with a suitably perverse choice, "Strange," an obscurity by R&B madman Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Costello leaves in the take's false start (now, is that any way to begin an album?), which serves as a tip to the barnstorming fun and games that await the intrepid listener. Another strong, off beat selection is Fifties hipster Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," whose blanket putdown mirrors Costello's own dry, curmudgeonly world view.
Rockers have been doing records like this one since Bryan Ferry's These Foolish Things in 1974; in fact, these days they're glutting the market. But Kojak Variety is something special: oxymoronic as it sounds, it's the most original album of covers ever made.