Elvis Costello and the Roots team up for a marriage made in heaven.
Rolling Stone Australia: Barry Divola
Illustration by Anwen Keeling
The photos look incongruous - a 59-year old white guy in a tight suit and fedora; a hulking black dude with the most impressive afro since The Hair Bear Bunch. It may seem to casual observers that this is an internet date gone awry: what the hell are drummer/DJ/producer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and his Philadelphia hip-hop collective the Roots doing with Elvis Costello, the Englishman who came to prominence as a snarling wordsmith wielding a Fender Jazzmaster like a machine gun in the late seventies? Well, to be frank, that kind of thinking does a big disservice to both parties, who sound like they're having a most pleasing mid-life musical affair.
For starters, the Roots are so versatile they can play just about any genre they want to - what other group of their ilk has become a night-time TV show house band?That would be them on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. As for Costello, there are few musical corners he hasn't investigated in a varied career that has passed the 35- year mark, and in truth he has co-opted black music for many years, from his frantic 1980 soul-pop album Get Happy!! to the R&B tinged "Everyday I Write The Book".
So although the pairing might seem odd at first, it takes approximately 30 seconds into opener "Walk Us Uptown" for you to go, "Oh! I get it!" Fuzzed-out synth and whizzing organ slither their way around Thompson's dry, in-the-pocket thwack. And then Costello starts singing with a crack in his voice, a strut in his delivery and a lyric that's all paranoia and swagger. You might hear echoes of The Specials in the skanking feel, but you could also draw parallels to one of Costello's best-known songs, "Watching The Detectives"
Throughout the album you hear bouncy clavinets, shivering strings and horn blasts like passing police cars, but the core of the sound is that funk back bone the Roots nailed down years ago. It seems to do something to Costello. In his more florid moments over the years, he has tended to overcomplicate things, constructing some songs like cryptic crosswords. Here he responds to his new sparring partners by slimming down his prose, and it's all the better for it. Of course, he still manages to pull out some beauties, such as the line in "Refuse To Be Saved" that manages to quote from Roger Miller's "King Of The Road" and push it up next to a reference to Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes.
If the lyrics of "Stick Out Your Tongue" sound familiar, it's because they're mostly from Costello's stark and scathing "Pills and Soap". In 1983 it was just piano, drum machine and a brow-furrowed vocal. Thirty years later it's scratched-up atmospherics, whistling keyboard, driving groove and clucking vibrato guitar. As updates go, it's not so much a quick touch-up as it is a completely new collage using the same basic elements. Costello sounds like he's having the time of his life re-writing his past. This is one fling that will spice up both partners' marriages.