Album Review: Elvis Costello and The Roots, 'Wise Up Ghost '

by David Safar

Album art for 'Wise Up Ghost' inspired by Allen Ginsberg's infamous poem book 'Howl.'
Album art for 'Wise Up Ghost' inspired by Allen Ginsberg's infamous poem book 'Howl.' (Blue Note Records)

The most dynamic musical collaboration of the year comes from one of the UK's greatest rock icons and America's most recognized live hip hop act. Elvis Costello and The Roots make an unusual pairing both in theory and practice. Costello's voice being synonymous with Britain's new wave and The Roots neo-soul backdrop create 12 songs steeped in the musical tradition of jazz, funk and soul. Appropriately released on Blue Note Records, Wise Up Ghost feels like a live album recorded in moments of improvisations between ?uestlove, Costello and producer Steven Mandel (longtime collaborating producer for The Roots).

Like any great jazz recording, the best parts of the music are found in between the notes and the juxtaposition of musical styles throughout the album. Wise Up Ghost is best consumed as a full body of work rather than single songs. It's disorienting in a music world focused on singles and playlists. The empty spaces keep the album swinging through the awkward pairing of Costello's faux rap riffs and The Roots' funk orchestrations. Uncomfortable lyrical moments on songs like "Stick Out Your Tongue" and "Sugar Won't Work" stand out if you skip the hard grooves of "Walk Us Uptown" (the "single") and "Refused to Be Saved."

On first listen, you won't notice the wonderful rawness in the performances and production. The more you listen to the seemingly cluttered production on "Come The Meantimes," you appreciate the character of each instrument and Costello's vocal takes. The subtle moments on songs like "Tripwire" and "If I Could Believe" bleed through the speakers, creating a sensation that The Roots might be playing in your living room, and Elvis Costello is delivering lines directly from the his brain to the microphone.

If you don't find yourself appreciating the songs on Wise Up Ghost, the collaboration itself is worth exploring. It's unlike any other album that will be released this year. The pairing of one of rock's best songwriters and lyricists with hip hop's best live band is worth a spot in your album collection.


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