REVIEW: Elvis Costello & The Roots’ “Wise Up Ghost”

 photo ECRoots_cover_zps5d58c706.jpg With many people excited for the new collaboration album between Elvis Costello and The Roots, there were others who seemed to be a bit confused, as if mixing up musical influences in 2013 is something weird and bizarre. Let’s not forget that a few years ago, mash-ups were the it thing to do and hear, so if someone wanted to mix up Slayer with Conway Twitty, this was okay. Yet you do something that mixes things up in “real life” and “oh no, this is beyond anything that could happen, because it offends me”. Maybe that’s why the title is called Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note) because they’re telling you to wise up, and as for the ghost? Look in the mirror. Boo, you’re Casper.

In truth, this is a damn good album, with Costello bringing on the type of songwriting that has been championed by fans and critics for five, count them, five decades. This is a man who is making this type of quality of music before the age of 60, and while it shouldn’t be an issue, some will make it to be one. Costello doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. If he feels like doing classical music for awhile, he will. If he wants to go rockabilly, he will. Jam with Paul McCartney? Done. With The Roots, it’s simply putting on a new musical costume and doing it differently, with a band who have been consistent in how they play and produce their output. The Roots are a hip-hop band, we know this, but they have covered a wide range of styles not only on albums, but in a live setting and on a daily basis being the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s show. This is not a band who came from a random place and said “okay, let’s play with this white guy so we can get some rock credibility”, these are musicians who grew up with a diverse range of music and they’re doing it. A track like “Refuse To Be Played” has Costello and The Roots sounding like Lenny Kravitz and his band, or the work drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson did with Nikka Costa. The keyboard work here is incredible too, anyone who has loved the jazziness of what The Roots have done over the years will eat this up sincerely, at times coming off like Thrust-era Herbie Hancock.

One might ask “do The Roots add a hip-hop vibe to Costello’s work?” Quick answer: no. Costello may do a quick jazzy scat here and there, but don’t expect for him and Black Thought (who isn’t on the album) to spit rhymes back and forth, this is not that type of album. Also, don’t expect Costello to try to be Macklemore, 2 Chainz, or Danny Brown just because he’s jamming with The Roots, this is not that type of album. Wise Up Ghost is an album by a pop/rock artist who has performed with many musicians behind him throughout his career, so consider this like The Roots sitting in at the nightclub, and oh by the way, Costello decided to surprise everyone by joining them. That’s not to say that there aren’t hip-hop influences on here? The drums in “Stick Out Your Tongue” seems like it was influenced by the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm”, while “Wake Me Up” may be a nice tribute to Dilla and the drum chops created for Q-Tip’s “Let’s Ride”. “Sugar Won’t Work” sounds very much rooted in the sound of New Orleans and The Meters, with guitarist Captain Kirk getting his love of Leo Nocentelli spread all over the place. I love the 3/4 time signature of “(She Might Be A (Grenade)”, where what sounds like a bass clarinet (could be a baritone saxophone) sounds very much like what Herbie Hancock did on Mwandishi and “Ostinato (Suite for Angela)”, while the string arrangement sounds as if it was some unreleased Clare Fischer score from Prince’s Under The Cherry Moon or Lovesexy sessions. Meanwhile, the groove in “Viceroy’s Row” has a nice “People Make The World Go Round” feel to it. In other words, it sounds like ?uestlove was having fun with throwing his musical knowledge out and said “I have some ideas”. To me, that sounds like a DJ at work, making sure there’s balance, consistency, and flow from start to finish so that things sound flawless without anyone falling over, as one of the songs on the album states, a “Tripwire”. The music is brilliant in how it is exexuted, whether you listen to it on the surface or try to piece the puzzle that may or may not be going on.

Costello handles guitar, bass, and keyboards on some of these tracks, along with a melodica in the opening song “Walk Us Uptown”, so if we are to get technical, he really didn’t *need* to bring The Roots in for anything. He could’ve pulled a McCartney and said “hey me, I’m going to make a solo album and I’ll do a human beatbox for drum tracks.”. But he didn’t, he brought in The Roots and what you hear is simply a band who continues to show strength as time goes on, in everything that they do. The solidness of Wise Up Ghost, and how it can sound modern, bright and new at times while also capturing certain vibes of the past, comes not only from the production of Costello and ?uestlove, but also Steven Mandel, who has been an important part of the production equation of The Roots, and he makes sure they sound as good as they can be. Mix that up with someone like ?uestlove who may also have his set of standards, but then add Costello to the mix? I am certain there were a few clashes here and there but they managed to compromise and “wise up” amongst one another, allowing each other to not only create and work, but get to a finished product that would make everyone happy.

I had read a reference elsewhere where someone made the claim there are Costello fans who were complaining how some of Costello’s lyrics were pulled from older songs, so that this new Costello/Roots album featured nothing but hints of rehashes. I’m sorry, but why is it that when Pink Floyd used continuity in their music by reviving bass lines, keyboard riffs, vocal harmonies, and sound effects throughout their entire discography, that’s considered one of the greatest things any rock band could ever do, while Costello possibly doing the same thing is a detriment, or something that may hurt the integrity of his music? Really? Are people saying this because no one ever thought Costello would work with a band like The Roots, or are people blown away that this album is so good that they have to throw in some kind of negative comment just to say there are drawbacks to this listening experience? C’mon folks, consider this a chance to hear Costello get down and funky. I would rather be an artist that is open to collaboration and experimentation than someone who was forced to do what management told me. Costello’s lyrics are as consistent as they have been since “Oliver’s Army”, “Peace, Love & Understanding”, “Accidents Will Happen”, “Every Day I Write The Book”, and “Taking My Life In Your Hands”, and features the same kind of sentimentality, humor, sarcasm, inquisitiveness, adventure, romance, and hope that has always been the constant string throughout his work. The Roots continue to be at the top of their game, and one might say it’s a game with no players in the hip-hop field, but I’m talking all bands across the board, all genres. What would happen if Costello worked with the Dap-Kings, would people then say “oh yes, now this is an official album, this is the album of the year” but with The Roots you’re going to slam them? Bullshit. Complete bullshit. It makes me question if you’re really listening to the music or merely waiting for another comment from someone who you want to gripe with, for the sake of griping. Again: Wise Up Ghost.

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