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 line—Is 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 one–off 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 means—Wise Up Ghost is more of a brainstorm than an actual breakthrough.

rpeluso's picture

Who asked you?  Its all a matter of taste.  Yours is your own, no one elses.  Music is not cerebral, its much more than that, and not that at all.  

Audio Legend's picture

Too bad the album sounds DREADFUL. Plastic, soulless production.frown

Sir Real B. Czar's picture

Has it been that long since 'When I Was Cruel' came out?

No, that has been just 11 years....right? 

Let's see, 2013 -2002=Yeah, 11 years.

willdao's picture

Well while I, too, am fond of it--have actually listened to it in the past six months and know all the lyrics these days (can't pry my trumpet into the middle of it anymore, as I used to like to, since it was stolen after a gig)--still, I think RB's "best records are now 30 years old" quote is accurate...if only because of the incredibly badly mixed, flabby bass, alone, on Cruel.  ("My opinions, I make 'em up"...a la George Carlin).


I'm curious about this new collaboration.  I've got some of The Roots stuff, too.  And just heard a terrific interview of ?uest on Fresh Air (NPR).  Elvis historically has been into interesting collaborations--some more productive than others, sure, but all nevertheless quite interesting.  I'll give it spin.

Sir Real B. Czar's picture

I agree with his early works being great. 'My Aim Is True' and 'Armed Forces' are still my favorites, but I prefer 'Cruel' over 'This Years Model' and much more than 'King'.

OTOH, 'Delievery Man' disappointed as a follow up (although still better than most tripe by others).

willdao's picture

Well, I'm six tracks in, latenight Friday night, sippin' a cocktail (my last, surely).  I'm liking it...the album...except--more than with most Elvis Costello albums--the Wall of Sound production is REALLY buggin' me.  Wish there was a different vibe: production does convey (or not) a lot.

Flipped it into (vanilla) Pro Logic mode...not surprisingly, the vast majority of the sound is ALWAYS routed to the center.  Sometimes, the surrounds will convey some out-of-phase info., but usually not.  And when you DO get some--or, for that matter, even info. from the L/R stereo channels--there's no rhyme or reason for it.  It's inconsistent, arbitrary.

Not how I'd have mixed it.  Lifeless.  Flat.  Until it isn't.  But it's too little, too...latent.

But interesting.

Defintely listen in stereo, btw.  Just don't be surprised when, accustomed to the centered, (mired-in-) concrete image (say, via IEMs, rooted deep in your brainstem), you find that a sousaphone, or whatever, scares the crap outa you by suddenly perching on your shoulder.

B- Mainly for production issues; strangely, even were these fixed, it might only rise to a B--and not a solid one.  IMA

Post Script:  Love the Mirasoul ingredient mixed in, and the subtle doo-wop influence for a minute.  But, wow, is Audio Legend right, I keep coming back to the fact that the production sucks.  Moments of near-rapture, briefly.  But horribly uneven, even intra-song.  Lyrics are mostly mediocre, too.  And where's the punched-up stacked-brass on the title track? (um, buried by all the other crap, including Elvis's too-prominent, all-center, all the time, too-forward voice).  The lack of dynamics & crappy compression'd give JGH ( & many others), fits.  Oops--kinda there for the last track.  Hmmm.  A bit of air, too.  Betcha they dial it out, inexplicably/inextricably, at some point in the song...


Nope.  Nicely done, at the end.  Cresendo. even.

Listened to most of the Bacharach collab. 

(couldn't bring myself, so late, to some sort of "Quartet Hell," um, so to speak, so you get sacharine brilliance--and good production values--in stead of...Deal with it..)




My rules, I make 'em up.


John Atkinson's picture

"The better the sound, the worse the music," except that in this case the opposite is true. The more I listen to this album, the more I appreciate the music making but the more grumpy I get over the terrible sound. Is using lo-rez, poor-sounding samples some kind of badge of honor among remixers? This reminds me of Tchad Blake, who once defended his choice to deliberately introduce some 60Hz hum in a recording on the grounds that it made the sound "more authentic."

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Audio Legend's picture

The production is horrible. IMO it places a barrier between the listener the music here.

It also illustrates the massive disconnect between audiophiles and the big time players in music production.

Recording at 44.1, 48 Khz Pro Tools. And yet we have audiophiles blathering on about DSD. What a hoot.

This slop was produced for the brain dead Jimmy Fallon mp3 crowd.

As you said, the better the sound, the worse the music. The only DSD downloads, the wholly grail for delusional 'philes, are of well worn (read:tired) old classical pieces, esoteric jazz, and acoustic music nobody has ever heard of. The only exception are Chad Kassem's SACD downloads. I'd rather have the SACD.

Back to your point. Recorded sound for high profile albums has headed into a ditch.

Hip hop and rap utterly destroyed rock and pop production values.

Audio Legend's picture

Compared to Zep's HORRIFIC Celebration Day, the poster child for pure sonic dreck passing of as a recording, this is a classic Blue Note anlalog album. laugh