The Roots and Elvis
It ain’t easy being 59 and living with the fact that what are arguably your best records are now 30 years old. Okay, King of American from `86 is another career highlight. Yet to his credit, Elvis Costello has, unlike many of his contemporaries, thankfully followed the Neil Young model of still giving a damn about being artistically relevant, no matter how much lucre he has stashed or how young his children are. He continues to explore ways to cover new artistic ground and find new modes of musical expression. He remains open to almost any idea, any new way to showcase his voice. This collaboration, an inspired pairing of Costello and ?uestlove, a pair of deep tracks music historians, seemed promising in the extreme. The resulting Wise Up Ghost is just that. Extremely promising, yet not entirely memorable. Hip Hop’s indefatigable big band, not to mention house band for Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, The Roots, (minus Black Thought) have here built beats and groove borrowings they play live around which Elvis sings. Not songwriting exactly, pieces like “Sugar Won’t Work,” with its fluttering violin intro and subsequent super funky bass lineIs that James Jamerson?are admirable meldings of two master stylists that while lightweight and art rock leaning actually work and make for a refreshing new flavor in the Elvis catalog.
In some ways, the pleasure in Wise Up Ghost lies in savoring the details like the aforementioned fiddles and bass line. There’s also the dirty guitar part that appears repeatedly in “Wake Me Up.” There’s Costello’s delicate crooning in the gentle “Tripwire,” which is some of his best singing in quite some time. And then there’s the cleverly twisted Roger Miller quote “no cool, no pets, no cigarettes,” in “Refuse to be Saved.” Lyrically, the liner notes refer to “a world in turmoil,” which could mean everything or absolutely nothing. What besides Costello’s usual skill with wordplay to make of lines like: “The Liberation Forces make movies of their own/Playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned/Drowning out a broadcast that wasn’t authorized/Incidentally the revolution will be televised/With one head for business and another for good looks/Until they started arriving with their rubber aprons and their butcher’s hooks.”?
While both artists sound committed to this oneoff lark, does it shed any meaningful new light on either artist? Probably not. While everything here is listenable and likable, this seems more like a very careful, some might say calculated, crossover record, of the variety that Don Was is clearly looking to populate his contribution to the Blue Note catalog with. The sound quality is just okay. Some of the ideas run thin when stretched to five minutes. And there is more about the head than the heart going on here. Oddly enough it’s the addition of another voice, La Marisoul of La Santa Cecilia, in “Cinco Minutos Con Vos,” that really makes the concept gel and the talents pool with real feeling. What the liner notes call an, “aural report on both historical memory and memory of history”whatever the hell that meansWise Up Ghost is more of a brainstorm than an actual breakthrough.