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Published: 2013/10/24
by Sam Robertson

Elvis Costello and The Roots
Wise Up Ghost

Blue Note Records

The relatively surprising pairing of Elvis Costello with The Roots developed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, as The Roots serve as the show’s backing band and have been joined by Costello several times, most notably for a mesmerizing, decidedly bare cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise.” Collaboration is a familiar concept for both Costello and The Roots, and their performances on Fallon planted a seed of friendship and mutual fandom that bore fruit with their first studio album together, Wise Up Ghost. Wise Up Ghost is not a random foray into hip hop for Costello, but instead a fluid project spurred on by a shared musical vocabulary that ranges from rhythm and blues to indie rock.

The album opens with strange keyboard effects before Costello’s sneer and Questlove’s drums slam “Walk Us Uptown” into gear. With splashes of organ and percussive stabs of electric guitar joining Questlove’s stiff, tight beat and a bubbling bassline, they settle into a groove that is maintained throughout the album. “Wake Up” and “Viceroy’s Row” echo the thumping street funk of “Walk Us Uptown,” and although the work of groove-heavy seventies soul singers Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway and early Stevie Wonder unquestionably influence Wise Up Ghost, the encyclopedia-like music tastes of Costello and Questlove throw plenty of variety into the stew.

The second track, “Sugar Won’t Work,” features a slinking groove during the verse before opening up into a chorus that finds Costello crooning above back-up singers and a Phil Spector-esque string arrangement. Brent Fischer, son of the famed Clare Fischer who worked extensively with Prince, added string arrangements to most songs, and the strings particularly stand out on “Sugar Won’t Work” and “If I Could Believe.” The album-closing “If I Could Believe” features heartbreakingly tender vocals and hopeless lyrics, with a minute-long gorgeous orchestral coda by Fischer ending things on a down note. Costello’s other ballad, “Tripwire,” is a highlight that almost brings indie rock heroes The National to mind with a slow piano melody, horn chart and paranoid lines like “Don’t open the door cause they’re coming, don’t open the door cause they’re here.”

Between Costello’s gentle, aching singing on the two ballads, strutting sneers, and near-rapping on the aggressive, hard-edged funk of “Refuse To Be Saved,” he demonstrates that although his nasally vocals are hardly conventional, few can rival his ability to use his voice as an instrument that molds to any style of music. Backing Costello’s voice with thumping rhythms, tasteful string and horn arrangements, and a willingness to incorporate a fresh variety of sounds and influences into the larger funk and soul approach, The Roots prove to be Costello’s perfect foil and Wise Up Ghost is hopefully only the beginning of a promising and already fruitful partnership.

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