The Telegraph: Helen Brown: 13th September 2013
Elvis Costello and the Roots have created a very cool, politically charged collaboration.
“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.
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.