AltSounds: October 6th 2013.
Elvis Costello has been a mainstay in pop music (in it's true form - not Miley Cyrus' version of pop) for bloody ages. Literally ages. However, you may be as surprised as I was to hear he's not even 60 years old. I can't think back through his back catalogue where he's taken risks though. He's been consistent, producing the type of music that when you need a crowd pleaser, something for the folks (no pun intended) or something to be easy listening, then he's always been my go-to guy. So, when I turned "Wise Up Ghost" on, and heard the initial bars of 'Walk Us Uptown', I was pleasantly surprised and also incredibly confused. If I could have taken a picture of my face at that exact moment, I'd show you to elaborate.
The collaboration between The Roots and Elvis Costello came about when Costello appeared on the Jimmy Fallon show, where The Roots are the house band. Recordings took place in both The Roots' and Costello's personal studios, according to the latter - "in the dead of night". "Wise Up Ghost" does have that midnight groove to it, a groove that takes the safe Costello we know and love, and drops him downtown at 2am with a bottle of cheap whiskey and possibly a few members of N.W.A and Prince's backing band.
A safe record this isn't! Opener, 'Walk Us Uptown' is moody hip hop meets acid jazz with the Costello pop wrapping, reminiscent of Blue Boy's 'Remember Me'. It transcends several genres in one song, and has a fantastic brass section - although sporadic over the track - really make it something. They sound hip and loose. Towards the end, it feels a bit reggae, Costello's unmistakeable vocal weaved in through the organised chaos of The Roots.
There are some tracks that feel more safe, although you can't really put them on the same LP as 'Oliver's Army', they're safe(r). 'Sugar Won't Work' is a modern day 'Mrs Jones' for fans of Finley Quaye. Costello takes on a crooner rat pack vocal, again over some hip hop for beginner style beats. 'Tripwire' is another - it doesn't fit with the records aesthetic at all. It's almost what you'd listen to to help you sleep at night, or what you'd hear to score a more solitary scene in a movie that doesn't really need music, but they've chucked some in anyway. 'If I Could Believe' would work in that scenario too, it's a ballad - and it's an unashamed ballad from someone who can knock this sort of stuff out in a day. It didn't do it for me, and it feels like The Roots are wasted on this track.
Going back to the more out there tracks on "Wise Up Ghost", the title track is fantasticly soul with the whole ensemble apparently aware this isn't the 1970's. It sounds like a cross between Earth, Wind and Fire meets Nelly. OK, Costello hasn't quite caught up with "Yeezus", but maybe he'll do that on the next one.
I'd love to see this live, maybe Elvis Costello will do what we've all been waiting for - a 90 minute breakdancing routine.