At the beginning of Elvis Costello's covers album, there's a little sleight of hand, a misdirecting cue to the listener — a false start, a brief bobble, a chuckle — and then the first song, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "Strange," really kicks off. It's a smart move, telling us this is going to be fun, lightweight and unbuttoned. And it's also a defensive one. Most of the delights on Kojak Variety are in the details: This album sounds more like the product of careful plotting than off-the-cuff inspiration.
Perhaps Costello realized after he consciously decided to avoid the obvious in his choice of covers that he'd failed to come up with any real hidden gems. Too many of the songs here have earned their obscurity. An early Randy Newman effort, "I've Been Wrong Before," turns out to be journeyman pop-ballad songwriting. "Bama Lama Bama Loo" is Little Richard in a by-the-numbers mode and way beyond Costello's vocal reach. (The guy's got cojónes though: He blustered through the song on a recent Letterman show when Little Richard was sitting in with Paul Shaffer's band.) The simplicity of Dylan's "I Threw It All Away" (from Nashville Skyline) is fatally gilded with "Party Girl"-like bathos. The samples of Jesse Winchester ("Payday") and Burt Bacharach ("Please Stay") are generic and minor.
There are some arresting touches, though: the psychedelic, weird-noises-in-the crevices take on Ray Davies' nicely naive "Days"; guitarist Marc Ribot's droll, pinched-note solo on Mose Allison's typically wry "Everybody's Crying Mercy"; the sidelong glance at "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" by keyboardist Larry Knechtel on the Holland-Dozier-Holland tune "Remove This Doubt." Throughout, Costello's vocals range from terribly strained — his most overused dramatic effect — to solid and mellifluous, which is pretty much old news, too. All this amounts to is a keepsake for the true fans, who are tolerant by definition and may be able to get behind these well-crafted renditions of rather mediocre material.