Elvis Costello
Kojak Variety
Warner Bros.

Elvis Costello is a man of many tastes and many ideas. In the last few years, he's played stripped-down rock and roll with the reformed Attractions and chamber-pop music with the Brodsky Quartet. You could be rude and call him scatterbrained and unfocused, a performer who lacks the discipline to follow a clear artistic path. Or you could call him a Renaissance man. The truth, I think, lies somewhere in between. Everything Costello does, after all, has loads of integrity, even if you can't pinpoint his philosophical core. And that integrity can be seen in the latest idea to spurt from his gray matter: Kojak Variety, a collection of 15 relatively obscure cover tunes dating between 1930 and 1970.

It's clear that, at some level, Costello connects emotionally with these vintage songs. By and large, he and his crack studio band offer up respectful -- one could say affectionately fawning -- interpretations. Even Costello's production feels designed to pay homage to an earlier time. With few exceptions, this all adds up to some hugely satisfying work. Costello has a swinging good time on Willie Dixon's slyly suggestive "Hidden Charms"; he finds the right gruffly raucous tone on Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo" (his strained, gravelly voice lending the tune a unique texture and urgency); and he sounds a soulful chord on a delightfully pitiful version of Baker/McCormick's "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man."

One reason I like this session is Costello's obvious motivation -- to shine a light on popular music's lesser-appreciated past. Under many circumstances this might seem patronizing. Not so with Costello. His respect for these songs and songwriters (they include Randy Newman, Little Willie John, Mose Allison, Ray Noble and the great team of Holland/Dozier/Holland) is pure and undiluted. This isn't the act of an artist trying to jump-start a career (Costello will leave that to Duran Duran and others), but an act of love.

-- Tim Carman

Robert Cray
Some Rainy Morning

Robert Cray is probably the best rhythm guitar player in the world; if you want evidence, all you have to do is look at the half-dozen or so Grammies he's shared with the likes of Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins. With teachers such as that, it's no surprise that Cray's also a monster of a frontman and songwriter; his reputation among students of the electric guitar is near-iconic for someone so young. Unfortunately, he's also been typecast as a blues artist, which limits his mainstream exposure. That's a shame; Some Rainy Morning is the sort of smooth, polished, powerful, blues-derived pop that the airwaves need. It's hard to understand why radio formats that program Clapton and Greg "The Wrong Brother Died" Allman with enthusiasm can't find room for Cray and the guitar-piano magic of tunes such as "Little Boy Big" and "Enough for Me."

Much of the appeal of Some Rainy Morning is the slick interaction between Cray and keyboardist Jim Pugh. Although Cray is a Seattle native, enough of his teachers have been masters of the piano-based Texas tradition that he knows no guitar is so good that it can't sound better by sharing the spotlight with the old 88. Another local influence can be heard on "Steppin' Out," where cold sauce-for-the-gander lyrics are underlined with precise, liquid-nitrogen chords that show the lessons Cray learned during the years he spent as a sideman with Albert Collins, Houston's own "Iceman."

Cray, though, is nobody's imitator. Yeah Some Rainy Morning is a powerful, polished modern blues recording -- but if anybody asks, just say it's the kind of music that deserves a much wider audience than a bunch of funky old blues nerds.

-- Jim Sherman

Red House Painters
Ocean Beach

San Francisco is creative crossroads for everything from hard-core punk to acid jazz, but perhaps no music charts the Northern California coastal landscape as deftly as the expressionistic folk made by songwriter Mark Kozelek and his Bay Area band, Red House Painters. Breezy but not easy, the mysterious quartet's fourth album, Ocean Beach, is moody and woozy and tranquil like a late afternoon walk on the sand.

While consistently slow and acoustic-based, the music squeezes an entire spectrum of colors out of its micro-style. On the instrumental opener "Cabezon," the hue is blissfully sunny and swaying to the shuffle of brushes and picked nylon-strings. On "Red Carpet," the addition of bottom-heavy bass and a guitar noise backdrop casts an ominous pall over the same basic formula. Meanwhile, the more upbeat and hook-driven shade of "San Geronimo" makes for thoroughly majestic rock. Sometimes melancholic, sometimes dramatic, Ocean Beach sounds musically united without slipping into emotional heterogeneity.

If for no other reason, though, Red House Painters are worth celebrating because their roots lie in the much-appreciated but rarely drawn-upon beauty of Simon and Garfunkel. Hearing the bouncing bass lines, plucked guitar intervals and peaking harmonies of "Over My Head" you just can't help feelin' groovy, and with the unrelenting stillness of "Summer Dress" and "Drop" we bask in the sounds of silence.

-- Roni Sarig

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Tim Carman
Roni Sarig
Jim Sherman