Album Review: Elvis Costello & The Roots, ‘Wise Up Ghost’

09.17.13 4 years ago

Blue Note Records

On “Wise Up Ghost,” Elvis Costello and the Roots make surprisingly compatible musical companions. 

From the first jagged synthetic rhythms that open the sinister-sounding “Walk Us Uptown,” it”s clear that there”s something special happening that unfurls through the course of 12 tracks.

The British singer/songwriter, known for his often snarling observations, and the Philadelphia hip-hop collective find an immediate groove that plays to both their strengths: Costello”s trenchant, biting words and complex melodies and The Roots” imaginative and creative song construction that pulls in a wide array of influences.

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After Costello admired how The Roots would come up with clever arrangements when he played “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” on which The Roots are the house band, he and lead Root, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson decided to see what happened if they took their collaboration beyond the confines of late night television. And the answer is a moody, brooding, always rhythmic and always interesting album.

The first idea was to remake Costello”s songs, but that notion gave way to another: Costello took fragments of existing tunes and they were reworked into new songs for four tracks (The remaining eight are original, from-scratch compositions). For example, the gorgeous “Tripwire,” easily the album”s gentlest, most swaying track, comes from a sample of 1989″s “Satellite.” But like almost all of the songs here, the melody may sound upbeat, but delve into the words and there”s a snarled mess of deceit.

While “Tripwire” may be melodically sweet as a lullaby, many of the other tracks are paved with wicked beats and grooves. The Rufus-like funk on “Refuse To Be Saved” (which features some lyrics from 1991″s “Invasion Hit Parade”) has Costello sounding a little like Dylan during a spoken word segment, as he”s surrounded by horns and a skittering electronic beat. Like many of the tracks here, “Refuse” starts as one thing and completely morphs into another.

The mid-tempo “Sugar Won”t Break” is probably the most Costello-like solo track here, but the Roots still give it a bottom heavy bass funk that grounds it down to the cellar.

Along with co-producer Steve Mandel, Costello and the Roots handle each track with such confidence, no matter the style, that can only come with years of experience, and heaps of talent, but also from being students of music. Whether they”re referencing Curtis Mayfield or Sly & The Family Stone, Tower of Power or Dr. John, there”s a respect for the music that they”re drawing from that shines through every crevice. Each note builds on the next and even when the tracks get busy with layers of horns or strings (although some of them remain quite austere), each instrument or loop comes through clearly. 

Costello and The Roots (minus MC Black Thought, who”s not on the album) and great studio musicians pretty much fill in all the spaces here, but La Mirasoul from Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia shows up to add some Latin spice to the languid, sexy “Cinco Minutos Con Vos.”

Both Costello and The Roots have proved to be play well with others in their myriad other collaborative outings, but this may set a new standard for both acts to meet going forward.

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