Music

Elvis Costello and the Roots: Wise Up Ghost

Photo: Danny Clinch

For all the collaborations both Costello and the Roots have enjoyed, this has to be among the most exciting, imaginative collection either party has experienced.


Elvis Costello and the Roots

Wise Up Ghost

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2013-09-17
UK Release Date: 2013-09-16
Amazon
iTunes

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. Is it rhythm and soul? Is it a shuffle? Is it the blues? Is it rap music come alive?

Ultimately, it's all of those things doing their best impressions of the others, an amalgam of an idiom as trite as influence that reaches unprecedented heights here because of impeccable fearlessness and rarified talent. There aren't a lot of people who could pull this type of collection off, anyway, and there certainly will be some who can't even muster the guts to accept it as mere listeners. But regardless of intention, reaction, comprehension or confusion, there is still no denying this undeniable fact: Holy cow. The Roots and Elvis Costello actually got together and made an album.

And at the risk of sounding overly smug or obnoxiously glib ... these 12 songs sound exactly like the Roots and Elvis Costello got together and made an album. Each artist is prevalent within the fabric of each note of each track, and each artist gives only as much as they take, allowing for the others to shine in ways only they know how. It's as unique as anything you'll hear in pop music today and it demands repeated spins before settling on any rational opinion. It's not, not accessible, of course, but it's also not "Alison" sung over a "Rising Down" back beat, either.

What it is, however, is a display of shit-hot funk feels underneath a surprisingly inspired and subliminally aged Costello. "Refuse to Be Saved", anthemic in nature, is irresistible fun, the singer inching closer and closer to Black Thought (who is disappointingly absent from the set) territory with his rapid-fire delivery and stuttering verses. Even more enticing is the Steve Naive-esque keys that meet up with the Roots' horns for an interplay alone worthy of whatever they want you to pay. By the time the "I refuse to be saved" cadence shines through the track's climax, you can't tell if you're in Memphis for the protests or the music.

Actually, it's that very Southern soul that makes Wise Up Ghost so intoxicating. "Wake Me Up", a retread of the singer's “Bedlam” and “The River in Reverse”, might be the grooviest Mr. MacManus has ever sounded on a record, his solemn, low-key vocals playing perfectly with the Philadelphia crew's expertly crafted and authentically presented version of contemporary R&B. Joining Costello's familiar faces is the decidedly hip-hop "Stick Out Your Tongue", a Punch the Clock favorite repurposed for a collection that was initially borne out of the idea that ?uestlove and his boys wanted to revisit some of the singer's catalogue. In hindsight, thank God they didn't. Because for as intriguing and insightful as that record may have turned out, it would have been criminal to leave this original material unrealized.

Maybe the most notable example of that would-be depravity is the tender "Tripwire", a throwback ballad that accentuates the best qualities of both parties. Costello, for all his signature angst and punk-rock attitude, has long allowed his secret weapon to be his vulnerability (have you seen the stripped down version of "Everyday I Write the Book" from his short-lived Spectacle series?). The Roots, meanwhile, are accustomed to backing modern-day soul sisters, mastering the art of playing it pretty while also playing it smart. In this instance, the song is a bona fide 1960s R&B radio hit, echoing Smokey and his Miracles along with a settled down Little Stevie Wonder. Adding to the AM Gold is the singer's delicacy, uttering the title word with the strength of a feather. It's so welcoming, you would prefer to fall asleep in it rather than to it.

Still, and all gentility aside, you can't have these guys get together and not expect some dirty fun. "Come the Meantimes" and "Walk Us Uptown" stand out for the dance party they want to help formulate in some sweaty warehouse the other side of Chelsea. The former is classic Roots with its slinky movements and unique instrumentation (not to mention an unavoidable Breaking Bad connection: With all the tiny, spastic ringing bells, it's easy to envision Hector Salamanca sitting in somewhere on this performance). "Uptown", the collection's first single, sets the tone correctly for a release so stubbornly collaborative. The funk guitars and organs, coupled with ?uestlove's straight-ahead pitter-patter, create the soulful legs on which the rest of the songs stand, a clear indication of exactly what is to be expected throughout the next 11 songs.

And what's to be expected through those next 11 songs is a surprisingly exciting record. For all the collaborations both Elvis Costello and the Roots have found themselves in, Wise Up Ghost has got to be among the most substantial, among the most revered. Everybody knew that it might get a little weird to hear what these guys could do together, but nobody figured it would be this ... invigorating. Costello sounds no more reborn than he does retooled while ?uest and his crew have never before appeared this skin-tight on wax (turns out that Fallon gig has worked wonders for their capabilities, no?). Right place, right people, right time; those things aren't even the half of it.

Some people turn their obsessions into careers, the singer argues at one point during "Stick Out Your Tongue". Elvis Costello and the Roots? Well, they already have the careers. With Wise Up Ghost, though, they now also have a great album.

8

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image