Elvis Costello and the Roots, ‘Wise Up Ghost’ – Album Review
As far as recording artists go, alt-rock god Elvis Costello and hip-hop gurus the Roots can pretty much do no wrong.
Alone, the Grammy-winning Costello has reinvented himself with each passing decade, sometimes through his own solo music, sometimes as part of Elvis Costello and the Attractions/Imposters and most often through his many collaborations. So, it’s no wonder he’s finally signed off on a hip-hop project.
The Roots, like Costello, have nary a misstep on their musical résumé and may be the greatest living hip-hop group out there. At the very least, they’re one of the best known, thanks to their sideline as the house band on ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.’ But they’ve also embraced their celebrity, completely killing it in the realms of viral videos and hilarious parodies. Like Costello, they get it, whatever “it” is.
And on their collaboration, ‘Wise Up Ghost,’ they got it — for the most part. There’s something to be said about a guy in his late 50s, with a younger-than-his-years voice that has unteachable end-note vibrato, singing over hip-hop beats married to lush orchestral instrumentation and sample snippets. If any other “legacy” artist — Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Neil Young — attempted it, it’d sound foolish. But Elvis and the Philly crew don’t push either genre the other. Although some tracks, like ‘Refuse to Be Saved,’ could definitely be defined as hip-hop, others (‘Tripwire’) could be played in a fancy restaurant in Florida without all the white patrons complaining about the cacophony coming out of the speakers. It’s somewhere between jazz and dated rock, hence the Blue Note release.
Most of Costello’s lyrics and highly recognizable vocals work surprisingly well in the sonic context. ‘Wake Me Up’ is a great example, with its hooky chorus and horny accompaniment, as is the spooky groove of ‘Stick Out Your Tongue,’ one of the highlights on the record. Songs like opener ‘Walk Us Uptown’ and ‘Cinco Minutos Con Vos,’ on the other hand, are just dead on arrival. The former is Gorillaz for geriatrics (save for the fantastic cracking of Costello’s voice at the 0:35 mark), and the latter is the trying-too-hard-to-be-fancy menu at ‘Tom’s Diner.’