Monday, September 16, 2013

Their aim is true - Elvis Costello and The Roots: Wise Up Ghost

When all is said and done, and the groovy gang have finished eulogising on how punk 'cleansed' popular music of the bloating that cocaine and overblown stadium rock brought to the mid-70s, it was actually the end of the decade that brought some of the most interesting entrants to the business.

In 1978, just as the world was cleaning up the sea of gob and safety pins, along came Elvis Costello, The Jam, The Police (yes, kids, Sting was cool once), Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Joe Jackson and Nick Lowe. Across the Atlantic, you had Blondie, Talking Heads (and their numerous offshoots), and Devo.

As Billy Joel, put it: "Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways, it's still rock and roll to me", and it was. Except that after the liberating, but often tuneless thrash of punk, New Wave - which seemed to be a Harvey 'Two-Face' Dent arrangement of British pub rock and New York club rock - brought to bear a more contrarian approach to songcraft and the chops needed take the 1970s into the 1980s on a progressive agenda.

In the three decades since, Costello and Paul Weller are the two New Wavists still pushing that agenda. Of the two, though, Weller still has a long way to catch up with his Liverpudlian contemporary, whose work rate and eclecticism has notched up 35 studio albums, Wise Up Ghost - a collaboration with retro hip-hop funksters The Roots - being the latest.

It's at that point you, like reviewers, it would appear, gasp and use the words "unlikely" and "pairing" in close proximity. The reality, you'll be pleased to note, is that Wise Up Ghost is like discovering the American habit of making sandwiches with both jam (or "jelly", as they call it) and peanut butter. A little unexpectedly, it works.

But for a performer who, for the first years of his career was regarded as a post-punk/angry young man/choose-your-own-cliche agit rocker with a contrary name ("he can't be called Elvis - there is only one Elvis, and he's dead") it was the delightfully soppy ballad Alison that brought Costello to mainstream audiences, while the album it came from, My Aim Is True satisfied a crowd being weaned off pogoing to the Pistols but still wanted something edgy to spill pints of cider to.

That, though, was then, and then is disappearing rapidly over the hill. In the 35 years since, Costello has consistently demonstrated himself the most prolific and eclectic acts Britain has ever produced, with a canon of work on his own, with The Attractions, with The Imposters, on rock, bluegrass, country, New Orleans jazz (with Allen Toussaint), easy listening (with Burt Bacarach) - the list goes creditably on. Only Paul Weller can match Costello for the output, but no one can match his versatility and variety.

Which brings us to his latest album, Wise Up Ghost, which sees Costello teaming up with Philadelphia's kings of hip-hop grooves-meets retro funk, The Roots. At first thought, this takes the idea of an "unlikely pairing" just a little too far. To some ears, Costello and The Roots have simply been on different planes, musically speaking. But consider, first The Roots' track record:

Telegraph: “Just to make it clear,” Elvis Costello has been declaring, “this is not my hip-hop record.” That may be so, but his inspired collaboration with Philadelphian group the Roots definitely does use “hip-hop methodology” to fabulous effect, as scratch and splice samples of his old songs turn into funky new forms, giving those trademark densely-packed lyrics space to bounce and swagger with some low-riding grooves.
For all the chatter about an “unlikely pairing”, this genre-fusing union shouldn’t come as a surprise. Costello has in the past bent punk, new wave, country and lounge jazz to his will, while the Roots are the sort of open-minded, playful musicians who aren’t afraid to bring a sousaphone onto the stage. Thoughtful, witty and often fierce, they’ve backed Jay Z, sampled Radiohead and covered U2, while band leader and drummer Amir “Questlove” Thompson has produced everybody from Al Green to Amy Winehouse.

Formed in 1987, the Roots became the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night chat show in 2009 and it was there they first met Costello. Over the next three years, they impressed him with their funky reworking of his songs, like 1980 hit High Fidelity. Eventually, some after-show jams turned into a remarkable record that sees Costello sounding more vital than he has for years, and roughs up some of the noodly, neo-soul tendencies of the Roots.
It crackles to life with the furtive, exciting atmosphere of a pirate radio station and recasts the strings of Costello’s 2003 ballad Can You Be True as a giddy, fairground organ, underpinned by two-tone style brass flourishes. The 59-year-old Brit snarls about flags and killing fields, his complex and tender guerrilla poetry darting about. He’s in turn a fighter, an observer and a victim from line to line: “No matter what the price/ Each crushed in the corner of their own paradise”. Costello’s not exactly rapping, but there’s a great, declamatory rhythm as he rasps about tears and prayers, bloodlust and insurance. He makes the geopolitical feel so personal you can smell its breath.
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Tripwire is a crooning lullaby for kids in a world of drones and shoe-bombers. She Might Be (A Grenade) is a portrait of a woman unbuttoning her dress, tearing off her veil and pulling out the pin. Lyrically it works as a tale of infidelity or terrorism: seeking the thrills, tensions and seductions of each. La Marisoul adds some slinky, Spanish vocals to Cinco Minutos Con Vos, while Stick Out Your Tongue revisits 1983’s Pills and Soap. Only the schmaltzy If I Could Believe left me unmoved. Otherwise, this is a very cool, politically charged collaboration which finds the Roots and Costello at their thrilling best.

Greg Kot: Chicago Trib

Costello singing at the Apple press event.

Serial collaborators Elvis Costello and the Roots join forces on "Wise Up Ghost" (Blue Note), an album that plays it scrappy and loose – as if neither had anything to lose. It's also a pointed and chilling state-of-the-world album. In a world in which government surveillance, chemical weapons and citizen revolts are ascendant, "Wise Up Ghost" provides an appropriately nerve-racking soundtrack with a desperate message: Indifference is death.

The unlikely collaboration was forged by Costello's frequent appearances on the "Late Show with Jimmy Fallon," where the Roots are the house band. Costello, Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Roots producer Steven Mandel do most of the heavy lifting; they write and produce the entire album. They've made what sounds like a noir song cycle that borrows from hip-hop, neo-soul and dark-night-of-the-soul singer-songwriter concept albums without fully embracing any of those genres. The stylistic ambiguity is precisely the point – it gives the project an instability rare for veteran artists with distinctive voices to project and loyal fans to satisfy.

Costello can come off as a dilettante in some of his genre-bending projects, but with Questlove he revels in sparse, edgy shadowplay and his understatement as a vocalist is matched by the musicianship. A masterful drummer, Questlove dials everything back and leaves plenty of space. The songs are on constant edge, a state of tension without release, as if anticipating a detonation that never arrives but is always a threat.

"She's pulling out the pin," Costello sings, the movie-script-worthy opening line for "(She Might Be A) Grenade." Strings bend and recede around him, keyboards stab and Questlove navigates, as the singer turns a femme fatale into a terrorist. In an album full of paranoid narrators, trouble drifts like nerve gas. "Don't open the door cause they're coming/Don't open the door because they're here" becomes the fearful mantra on the deceptive lullaby "Tripwire," with its chiming bells and lulling vocals.

The flair for disorientation flags in the second half. Tempos drag in the Latin-flavored "Cinco Minutos Con Vos" and the static "Viceroy's Row," and the title track is a mood piece that never climbs out of neutral. But even these misfires feel like experiments that fell short, while the rest of "Wise Up Ghost" revels in its uneasiness.

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