Release Date: Sep 17, 2013
Record label: Blue Note
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Contemporary Pop/Rock, College Rock
It’s like seeing a psychiatrist. There you are trying to explain your problem with it, trying to locate a solution and present as many alternatives as you possibly can, and sometimes you end up with 'Gee, I think I’m talking to the wrong guy. ' The above quote is from Tom Waits, talking in July 1989 to Elvis Costello for Option Magazine about how working with the same musicians album-on-album, year-on-year, inhibits the writing process.
Elvis Costello long ago realized that, his legacy as a songwriter having been secured, he can embrace pet projects that can take him out of his comfort zone without putting a dent in his reputation. As one would expect with these outside-the-box efforts, the results are incredibly varied. Costello can frustrate (his neo-classical works and collaboration with a string quartet) as often as he can thrill (his still-engaging pop album with Burt Bacharach).
Elvis Costello has collaborated with a lot of artists throughout his career, so it carries serious weight to say that his new album with The Roots is the very best of those musical chemistry experiments. Wise Up Ghost is fierce and unrelenting, both musically and lyrically, the sound of artists trying to take the temperature of the times in which we live and getting pretty steamed in the process. Born of a Costello appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots are the house band, the album was originally going to be a reworking of Elvis classics.
A frequent visitor to US comedian Jimmy Fallon’s chat show on US television, Costello has relished sitting in with house band The Roots for inspired re-workings of his early material. Wise Up Ghost develops the relationship much further, on a collection of original songs, albeit it with a few spliced lyrical excerpts from Elvis’ past. Advance press suggesting it was a hip-hop collaboration are exaggerated, however, because, though clipped riffs and breakbeats are peppered throughout, it’s closer to an old-school soul record with nods to the sublime grooves of The Meters or Curtis Mayfield.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson moves ever more firmly toward the Jack White business model, setting himself up like guitar heroes of the '60s and '70s who trotted out, and reinvigorated, aging luminaries. Such is the case on Wise Up Ghost, on which the Roots play Elvis Costello's backing band. The partnership underpins the most overtly cool iteration of Costello's disaffected delivery in years, if not decades.
Early in his recent memoir, Mo Metta Blues, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson admits to writing reviews of his own albums as a way of pre-screening or even projecting what he’s about to offer the world. “[I] lay out the page just like it’s a Rolling Stone page from when I was ten or eleven,” he writes. “It’s the only way I really know how to imagine what I think the record is.
Musicians separated by age, style, and demographic, Elvis Costello and the Roots are nevertheless natural collaborators bound by wide taste, insatiable appetite, and fathomless record collections. This is particularly true of Roots drummer/de facto bandleader ?uestlove, the musical omnivore who is the band's most recognizable member and perhaps the only popular musician outside of Costello who values the music press. This is not incidental to Wise Up Ghost, the unexpected 2013 collaboration between Costello and the Roots.
In a 2002 interview, Elvis Costello bemoaned the relatively cool reception of his many collaborative albums: “They’re not side projects… I give them all my time and attention. The attitude since [1996 album] All This Useless Beauty has been, Why doesn’t he knock it off and make an Elvis Costello record?” Costello has steadfastly refused to “knock it off” in the 11 years that have followed those comments. During that time, he’s written and recorded with artists as diverse as jazz pianist Marian McPartland, R&B legend Allen Toussaint and the London Symphony Orchestra.
All you really need to know about Wise Up Ghost, the genius collaborative effort from iconic songwriter-singer Elvis Costello and iconic live hip-hop act the Roots, can be found on “Viceroy’s Row”. At about five minutes, the song is the single most indicative example of precisely how oddly nuanced the entire project ultimately is. The track runs on ?uestlove’s misleading, inventively provocative dark groove that doesn’t even prove itself not a mistake until the third or fourth listen.
Both Elvis Costello and the Roots are what you might call serial collaborators. At an age when a lot of artists sink into comforting nostalgia – making albums that wilfully evoke the albums that made them famous in the first place – Costello seems instead to have embarked on a quest to find new partners to spark his muse: from Burt Bacharach to Allen Toussaint to Swedish mezzo-soprano Annie Sofie von Otter to octogenarian jazz pianist Marian McPartland. As for the Roots, there's a reason one online biography of their drummer/producer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson opens with the adjective "ubiquitous".
While the announcement of a collaboration between The Roots and Elvis Costello was certainly a surprise, it would be boneheaded to say that there’s no precedent to Wise Up Ghost in either band’s vast careers. Neither act are strangers to collaborations outside of their comfort zone, and it’s fair to say that Ghost doesn’t actually step too far out from certain corners of either band’s ouvre – the lurching loops and swampy textures of Costello’s 2002 effort When I Was Cruel are actually pretty obvious forerunners to the tracks here. In fact, what on paper sounds like a potentially clumsy stab at relevance for Costello and timelessness for The Roots actually turns out, on wax, to be a pretty potent meeting of minds.
At the risk of giving away too much too soon, there’s one thing that listeners need to know going into Wise Up Ghost: This is not an Elvis Costello hip-hop record. Costello has never before put listeners in a position to speculate about his hip-hop credentials, but upon the announcement that the pop music maverick was rubbing shoulders with The Roots, fans and critics jumped to what seemed to be the most logical conclusion. And, truthfully, the idea wasn’t that much of a stretch.
The Roots’ four years as house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has helped unleash their limitless potential. This collaboration with veteran genre-hopper Elvis Costello follows his appearance on the show, and its only disappointment is the absence of Roots rapper Black Thought to joust with him. ‘Refuse To Be Saved’ is as funky as Dr John, and the title track mines a ’60s black-power vein.
A small outburst of tie-loosening sounds scurry across the opening seconds of "Walk Us Uptown", the first song on Elvis Costello and the Roots' Wise Up Ghost: We hear a few warm-up blurts, studio cross-chatter, and someone bringing up the volume on a laptop. When artists with historical baggage collaborate, sometimes these little expectation-defusing gestures pop up, a way to subtly prod reverent audiences into listening with new ears. Bear with us, we're just putting this together on the fly, they say.
Another dubious Elvis Costello genre exercise? Actually, this collab is something sturdier and more interesting: a pained set about decaying culture long on verbose vitriol and (obviously) wicked grooves – think a dyspeptic What's Going On or a soul-powered Armed Forces. There's stealth hip-hop science: Songs slice up beats and flip deep-catalog Costello ("Pills & Soap" on the neck-snapping "Stick Out Your Tongue," "Satellite" on the waltz-time "Tripwire"). But the best bits, like "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," a slithering duet with fiery Mexicali fusionist La Marisoul, dodge pigeonholes like Questlove dodges the one.
One of the founding fathers of new wave punk and a Philadelphia hip-hop band? Dig a little deeper into the respective histories of Elvis Costello and the Roots, though, and you'll understand why this record works. Costello has always dabbled in other genres, and drummer ?uestlove is a music nerd to the core who knows when to rein in his band and when to play to others' strengths. There are some missteps - the ballad Tripwire feels out of place in the general uptempo pace, and in (She Might Be A) Grenade, Costello lazily compares a girl to an atomic bomb (didn't Green Day already do this?) - but when the album works, the band and the singer/songwriter sound more invigorated than they have in years.
Devotees of Elvis Costello will find this collaboration with hip-hop band the Roots a more labour-intensive listen, perhaps, than the casual arriviste. These tracks are densely self-referential, borrowing lyrics and themes from Costello's past. Most politically, there is a sequel, of sorts, to his Falklands-era screed, Shipbuilding, called Cinco Minutos Con Vos, which imagines the view from the south Atlantic.
Few musical pleasures are as satisfying as an eloquent artist with a sharpened pen and bitter tongue delivering perfectly pitched poison -- especially if the songwriter name-checks Disco-Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes and cites soldiers “playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned.” It doesn’t hurt if the band propelling these darts is the Roots. Bitterness and Elvis Costello, how sweet the sound. On “Wise Up Ghost,” the musician's powerful new collaboration with the hip-hop group (and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” backing band), the artist offers a dozen songs that tackle war, peace, dishonor, disappointment and strife.
opinion byJERRICK ADAMS I’ll admit it: when I first heard that Elvis Costello was teaming up with the Roots for a full-blown, album-length collaboration, I feared the worst. It seemed too much like sheer spectacle — the idea seemed too novel; the proposed synthesis of styles too incongruous. I’ll admit this, too: I’ve never been so completely wrong in my assumptions about a record.
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There are many things to thank “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” for, and this captivating collaboration from veteran singer-songwriter Elvis Costello and versatile “Fallon’’ house band the Roots is another for the list. Following several appearances on the show, Costello and the hip-hop soul crew hit the studio and the chemistry is undeniable. The musical sensibility — darkly funky, spectral harmony vocals, soulful swagger, jagged guitar, eruptive horn blares, fluid bass — is more Roots; the lyrical sensibility — verbose, sharply observed, personal, and political — is more Costello.
Elvis Costello & the Roots Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs (Blue Note) Unexpected collaboration and stylistic reversal have become hallmarks for Elvis Costello, but none reaches as far afield as teaming with the Roots. While his early throwbacks to classic R&B thread the obvious connection, the Roots traffic in more funked-up rhythms, unloaded at the outset with the scratched groove of "Walk Us Uptown. " They also push beyond the singer's vocal range, his gritty croon crackling in contrast to the band's tight rhythms.