WhatCulture!: 13th September 2013
It is a rare thing when two things you love from two different worlds come together, it does not happen often and can lead to great anticipation. Anticipation was what I felt when I first heard that Elvis Costello was going to be working on an album with Philadelphia’s The Roots crew. Anticipation for what could be an amazing album from two acts who have the capability to produce incredible music but there is also the chance that this album could lead to something best forgotten.
Although as surprised as I was when I first heard of this collaboration it immediately made sense; Elvis certainly has a soulful sound within him and we know The Roots are no strangers to Rock and Roll (remember the Seed 2.0 from 2002 for example). The album is released on September the 17th on the legendary Jazz label Blue Note. The album is 12 tracks long with 3 bonus tracks floating out in the ether somewhere (not reviewed in this review). Questlove and Elvis produced the album with help from longtime Roots producer Steven Mandel. In early 2013 Questlove, told Billboard that the Roots’ gig as the house band for ‘Late Night With Jimmy Fallon’ had given them the opportunity to back up Costello a number of times. He described the relationship as “love at first sight. From there they went on to spend a year recording the album mainly at the Feliz Habitat Studios in the dead of night and in plain sight at Costello’s?Hookery Crookery Studios. Questlove went on to say ”We had 13 or 14 songs, but then we said, ‘Ooh! Wait a minute! Let’s replace four of these songs with four better songs! And now we have the tightest 12-14 song collection out of about 20 songs that we made.” Whereas Elvis stuck to his usual mysterious description style when describing the album ”the shortest distance between here and there” and containing “both rhythm and what is read.”
The Roots have spent decades working out how to apply a Hip-Hop principle to a live band sound to which Elvis applies both his unique vocal style. At times laying a soft serenade reminiscent of his classic ballad “She” and at other times bringing forth the strong vocal style seen on “Oliver’s Army”. The sound overall brings forth memories of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and other Philadelphia Soul Funk legends. The subject matter sits firmly in the scary section covering topics ranging from the abuse of power to the betrayal and the manipulation of desire.
The album kicks off with the Hip-Hop infused Funk joint “Walk us Uptown”. it starts off with some electric sounds before a nice crisp snare comes onboard and then Elvis steps to the mic. He sings with an impassioned voice as a nice bass joins the snare and later a sax comes onboard to complete the early 70′s funk checklist. Its an up tempo track where Elvis touches on social uprisings and oppression. A strong start to the album. If the first track woke you up then the second one, “Sugar won’t work” is a more peaceful relaxing track very reminiscent of the old Philadelphia Soul sound; a nice strings crescendo to begin with soon joined by drums and a lovely bass riff. Then Elvis comes in telling us to “Lighten’ up and shake the crowd”. His voice is soft, his accent coming through more. A mid tempo song with depth and soul.
The third track is “Refused to be saved” a straight Philly funk track with a 70s cop show guitar riff alongside a lovely Hammond organ. Elvis is using his rough voice and it works so well alongside the music to create an atmosphere of car chases and a young Gene Hackman beating up a drug dealer. ”Wake me up” is the album’s fourth track which has a nice marching drum beat with that sweet Hammond organ again and a sultry saxophone. There is also a nice guitar riff in the back to accompany Elvis’ vocals which find him asking there must be something better than this. A well suited combination of music and lyrics combining to make a darker but enjoyable track.
“Tripwire” is the album’s fifth track and features a subdued opening made up of what sounds like a bell being rung underwater. The other tracks were the soundtrack to the middle of the night, whilst the clubs and parties are still going strong “Tripwire” is the soundtrack to the early hours as they sky turns from black to grey as the sun rises. The beat is mellow and Elvis’ lyrics have depth and tell us that “Just because you don’t speak the language doesn’t mean that you can’t understand”. At times his voice falters but it only adds to the atmosphere of the early hours created by the song. His lyrics lead us to believe that someone is waiting for that knock on the door in the early morning with anxiety and trepidation. Elvis performed a live acoustic version of this at the recent Apple product launch but it was performed as a much harder version and not as laid back as this but its this one I prefer. At halfway point through the album we are given “Stick Out Your Tongue”. The track starts off with a lovely drum beat and a seventies guitar riff before Elvis comes sounding like he is singing over an old telephone. The beat is slower than some of the previous joints on the album but the funky guitar riffs and the organ stabs in the background keep it interesting.
“Come the Meantimes” starts of with Elvis asking “what are you going to say to me when you be betraying me?” over an upbeat snare drum and some nice strings. The appears to be the first joint on the album to feature backing vocals and they add a nice extra level to the song along with a bell making sporadic appearances (DJ Premier would be proud). Its a strong upbeat track that wears its Hip-Hop heritage on its sleeve and is better off for doing so. The next track is “(She Might Be A) Grenade” which is a variation of “She’s Pulling Out The Pin” from Elvis’ earlier The Delivery Man album. Its a slower paced track with orchestral strings and a strong drum break as the centrepiece. elvis’ vocals are on point getting the message across of being at the mercy of this woman about to explode.
Cinco Minutos Con Vos” is the album’s ninth track and start with a nice laid back drum break and some lovely horns. Then we have more 70′s esque guitar riffs before Elvis comes in with a set of ltyics describing a somewhat stalking like scenario. Towards the end of the track he is joined by La Marisoul, lead singer of Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia who has a lovely voice. This is followed up by the upbeat “Viceroy’s Row” which features a light hearted set of horns over a nice Hi Hat and drums. Although the subject matter is in tune with the rest of the album it seems somewhat happier because of the summery feeling horns, another good track.
The eleventh track is the title track and also the longest on the album coming in at over six minutes. Its also the most cinematic of the all the tracks ons the album with orchestral strings, double bass and backing vocals providing a sound scape for Elvis’ dark lyrics. As the song progresses a the strings become the dominating instrument of the track. lyrically theres not a great deal going on but it doesn’t matter what is there suits the track perfectly. A strong title track. The album end on”If I Could Believe” a wistful piano based track lamenting his lack of belief and what lead him to that feeling. Elvis owns this track completely, this is all about his voice and lyrics. With lines likes “If I could believe you were heaven sent” and “If I could believe two wrongs make a right” he conveys a feeling of sadness and loss. the piano and drums give it an almost ballad like feel. at around 50 seconds from the end of the track we are treated to a final slice of lovely strings.
I completely enjoyed this album far more than I hoped I would. This could have easily been Elvis does Hip-Hop or another Roots crew Rock / Alternative outing. It isn’t either of those things its is a strong soul and funk album with dark and honest lyrics. It creates images in your mind of 70s revolution and dark crime thrillers likes the French Connection. Last year The Roots made an album with Betty Wright that was tragically underrated but a great listen and completely crafted to her style this is another example of this. The collaboration is uniquely Elvis Costello but at the same this also has more of The Roots Hip-Hop heritage running through it. I would have lovely a verse from Black Thought but perhaps that would not have fitted with the rest of the album. A very strong album, worth checking out for fans of both groups but also for people who love that 70s Philadelphia soul and funk sound. As Questlove said ”It’s a moody, brooding affair, cathartic rhythms and dissonant lullabies. I went stark and dark on the music, Elvis went HAM on some ole Ezra Pound shit.”