Elvis Costello and The Roots
Wise Up Ghost - BLUE NOTE
FILTER Grade: 86%
By A. D. Amorosi on September 20, 2013
Having Philadelphia’s hip-hop heroes The Roots as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has made for dynamic collaborations, some merely amusing, some quite stirring. Pop’s wordy soliloquist Elvis Costello and The Roots’ drummer/mouthpiece Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson must have found that the latter was the case since, after having jammed together during several Fallon shows, decided a full-blown joint venture was in order. The Roots are used to this-level teaming: they recorded an album with pianist/vocalist John Legend and move next to a pairing with righteous R & B crooner Al Green. For Costello’s part, he appears as often on The Colbert Report as he does Fallon’s and has recorded with cosmopolitan compositional elders such as Burt Bacharach to winning effect.
As far as the Costello–Roots duet goes, on the whole, Wise Up Ghost sounds like vintage, acerbically poetic Costello from his dark ABBA-meets-Motown 1980 epic Get Happy!! (think the brooding “High Fidelity” from that release) crossed with The Roots doing their take on the dizzyingly dissonant, psychedelic soul of Sly & The Family Stone’s Stand!. Neither specifically punk nor funk, moments like “Walk Us Uptown” feature a N’Orleans parish shuffle and a stark slamming brass section behind Costello’s obtuse talk of fighting forward or surrender. “Sugar Won’t Work” offers a slippery bit of swamp soul (and orchestral strings) for Costello and his background voices (like Roots’ Black Thought) to swim upon. “(She Might Be A) Grenade” politicizes sexuality (or sexes up politics, take your pick) in a way that makes Beckett seem tame, to the accompanying purr of James Poyser’s raw organ grinding (the producer-turned-Roots member is the true MVP during the Ghost sessions) to heighten the grotesque sensuality.
Though it’s neither side’s finest moment (no insult, just fact) Wise Up Ghost offers each participant a chance to stretch out and try on some relaxed-fit doom-and-gloom with weird soul on the side.