Last week we were talking about audacity, about artists willing to try ideas that shouldn’t work, and bend them into reality by sheer force of will. As it turns out, that’s a great lead-in into this week’s review, so I’ll reiterate: some of the best music I know comes from a place of total trust and belief in a seemingly unimaginable idea. On paper, it reads like a recipe for disaster. On record, it’s magic.
With that in mind, check this out: Elvis Costello made an album with the Roots.
I’ll say that again, because it’s so much fun: Elvis Costello, the 59-year-old Englishman who stands as one of the worlds best and most idiosyncratic songwriters, made an album with the Roots, the premier live hip-hop band from Philadelphia best known for their long-running stint on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It’s called Wise Up Ghost, and it was released by Blue Note Records. This is a real thing that really exists.
If you’re a fan of Costello or the Roots (or both, like me), this titanic team-up probably caught you by surprise. It’s not a natural pairing, but it you think about it, it starts to make a sort of sense. Costello is a musical chameleon, beholden to no style, and willing to try just about anything. He’s known for pairing up with younger, less pedigreed acts like Fall Out Boy and the Strokes, though he generally saves his big-deal collaborations for his albums – his knockout record with Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse, for example.
And the Roots are one of the most versatile bands on the scene right now. They play with everybody on Late Night, and their records, though rooted in hip-hop, draw from a deep well of influences, including soul, funk and jazz. They have a strong social conscience and a knack for storytelling – see their album-length tale of woe from 2011, Undun. And in bandleader ?uestlove, they have one of the finest drummers any band could ask for – and one of the smartest.
That being said, there are two ways Costello and the Roots could have screwed this up.
1. They could have made a Roots album with Elvis Costello on vocals. Can you imagine Costello relegated to singing the hooks on a hip-hop album, trying desperately to shoehorn one of the most distinctive voices in rock into a box that would never fit it? While it might have been a strong showcase for the Roots, it would have been a missed opportunity.
2. They could have made an Elvis Costello album with the Roots as the backup band. Never mind that Costello’s songs are fussier and less loose than the ones the Roots normally play, this would have wasted one of the coolest bands around, turning them into little more than session men sitting in for the Impostors. It might have been a fine Costello album, but it wouldn’t have been much of a collaboration.
Thankfully, Wise Up Ghost is neither of those things. It’s a true collaboration, for better and for worse, between two distinct artists willing to hunt for common ground. It never comes off as effortless – they worked at this, trying to meet each other halfway, and hammering this new hybrid sound into shape. The record is full of experiments, and some of them work better than others.
Costello and the Roots have front-loaded the album with the ones that work, particularly the opening trilogy. Wise Up Ghost bursts to life with the busy streetscape of “Walk Us Uptown,” making the most of a killer beat from ?uestlove, a minimal bassline, some low-key horns and organ, and Costello’s thick-throated voice. This song comes right from his bile duct – he sounds furious, even on the major-key sunrise of the choruses. Costello’s voice has aged in recent years, and though he still sings like a man possessed, he can’t carry the same heavy tunes he used to. But he’s perfect on a song like this, with its slow orbit of a melody.
He’s even better on “Sugar Won’t Work,” a slinky old-school slice of striding soul. This one’s a good showcase for guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, but it’s Costello’s chorus and the tasty strings that make it work. (Some of the strings are real, some are sampled, but in a nice touch, the Roots sampled exclusively from Costello’s orchestral works.) It’s “Refuse to Be Saved,” however, that truly proves the concept. This song, to put it mildly, kicks ass. Aside from some horn accents and a repeating electric piano line, this song is driven by ?uestlove’s drums, and Costello rises to the occasion with some of his angriest, darkest vocals. He spits these words out like he can barely get his tongue around his own disgust.
This seems like a good time to talk about the lyrics, the most complex and rage-filled set of words Costello has given us in a long while. The cover of Wise Up Ghost is designed to resemble City Lights Publishing’s Pocket Poets series, which first published Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, among other notable works. This is not just a clever marketing gimmick – the album is politically charged poetry, red with anger. Costello is done being amused, and he’s back to being disgusted full time.
“Refuse to Be Saved” is a strong example. It’s terrifying: “They’re hunting us down here with liberty’s light, a handshaking double-talking procession of the mighty pursued by a TV crew, and coming after them, a limousine of singing stars and their brotherhood anthem, the former dictator was impeccably behaved, they’re mopping up all the stubborn ones who refuse to be saved…” Costello stands up against the dystopia in the song’s final moments, repeating “I refuse to be saved” as the world collapses.
Costello reuses some older lyrical concepts here, reworking “The River in Reverse” for the relentless stomper “Wake Me Up,” and fashioning his first flirtation with hip-hop, “Pills and Soap,” into the even more venomous “Stick Out Your Tongue.” Throughout the record, he works in apocalyptic imagery: “Someone went off muttering, he mentioned thirty pieces, Easter saw a slaughtering, each wrapped in bloodstained fleeces…” The songs are littered with messy revolutions and uncaring gods.
I only wish Wise Up Ghost were more consistent. You can hear the scaffolding creaking on “Tripwire,” a decidedly Costello-esque ballad with lyrics that should have been shouted, but ended up crooned. After that, the record sags – it’s one mid-tempo, melody-free jam after another, and despite some nice surprises, like “Cinco Minutos con Vos,” it fails to keep the interest level high. I’ve ended up liking all of these songs, at least somewhat, but the stretch from “Come the Meantimes” to the title track could have used some tightening up, some pruning, or a shot of adrenaline. They’re all valiant attempts at musical alchemy, but they fall short.
Odd, then, that the album ends with its most typically Costello song, and it’s a winner. The tender “If I Could Believe” finds Costello stretching that aging voice to its limit, singing his heart out over Ray Angry’s delicate piano. The song is a cry of anguish: “If I could believe, then I know I might sleep all through the night, but how many times must I wake in fright, nagging doubts still tugging on my sleeve, if I could believe…” His weathered voice adds a lovely dimension to this song – he’s not choosing his fate, he’s unable to choose anything else. There’s an indescribable sadness to it, one I did not expect on an album like this.
I feel pretty certain that Wise Up Ghost is a one-off – both Costello and the Roots are too restless to stay in this place for too long. That’s kind of a shame, since in the record’s early going, they seem to have hit upon something worth exploring. If the entire album had remained at the standard of the first five songs, this would be an unqualified success. As it is, it represents a fascinating collision of disparate styles, a potential chocolate-and-peanut butter situation that could have used some further digging. This album works much more often than it should, and that alone is a sign that they’ve struck some form of gold. I like Wise Up Ghost, for the most part, but I’d like another one, and then another, to really see if Elvis Costello and the Roots can truly connect. This album is audacious, and it’s almost great.
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I just heard that Girlyman broke up.
As I understand it, the four members of the band split up some time ago, but Doris Muramatsu and Ty Greenstein made formal announcements this past week. It’s a sad day – Girlyman was a consistently lovely band, built around three extraordinary voices that blended together like angel hymns. Muramatsu, Greenstein and Nate Borofsky wrote some gems during their decade-plus together, and drummer JJ Jones rounded things out, joining full time in 2010.
I first heard Girlyman courtesy of my friend Mike Ferrier, who saw them opening for the Indigo Girls. He bought me Remember Who I Am, the band’s debut, and I was hooked from then on. They made five albums, including last year’s excellent Supernova (which I never got around to properly reviewing), and one superb live album. And they wrote one song in particular that changed my life – “Somewhere Different Now” became my anthem of hope in 2008, a decidedly simple yet astonishingly beautiful work of art.
I guess I should have seen this coming – Ty has a solo album, One True Thing, and the other three Girlymen recently collaborated on a children’s album under the name Django Jones – but I didn’t. So here’s a toast to a band that should have been more widely heard, and more widely loved. Thanks for everything, guys, and I look forward to following your future endeavors.
See you in line Tuesday morning.