Elvis Costello and the Roots – “Wise Up Ghost”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Walk Us Uptown,” “Refuse To Be Saved”

Elvis Costello and the Roots coming together is one of those combinations that no one ever thought up, but when we heard it, it just kind of makes sense. Costello, the post-punk singer who always has a groovy touch to his music, and who has recently been branching out to other genres, and the Roots, the jazzy hip-hop group and permanent residents as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Their work together on “Wise Up Ghost” just feels natural, the best quality to have on a groovy record like this.

The album starts with the sound effect of someone increasing the volume on a Mac (that blip-blip-blip), a testament to how long each act has been active (The Roots since ’87, Costello since ’70) and an ode to the timeless style of music they create. The album’s opening tracks are very upbeat, hip songs that blend Costello’s post-punk with classier hip-hop. Many of the songs have a variety of instruments, creating a full and diverse sound. Standout “Refuse to Be Saved” matches a clean synth rhythm over horns, until both die out and a string section ends the song. They pull off an excellent ballad, too, in the closer “If I Could Believe” that relies successfully on Costello’s strong vocals.

The album is not without its faults. The fifth song, “Trapwire,” is undeniably slow, too slow for it’s placement on the album. This kind of kills the vibe that’s been built up before transitioning to a number of midtempo songs. The title track finally brings it back to the fun it was before, but not until track 11. What’s in between is a number of good songs, just ones that are not as interesting as what comes at the album’s bookends. Also, given that The Roots are one of hip-hop’s funkiest groups, it’s surprising that there is no rapping on the album. The vocals rest solely on Costello. Just one track of some back and forth would have been nice – a fast song with rapping in the verse and singing in the chorus.

Although the album is a little inconsistent, it is greatly helped by some pristine production. The production is just a little grainy and a little condensed, invoking the sound of a 70′s record. The album is kind of a throwback, and the production places the listener in that era with the help of some perfected vintage production.

The album’s slower songs are a little tough to get though, but “Wise Up Ghost” is a lot of fun while having a lot of depth. Costello still sounds great, and the Roots’ diverse instrumentation give the album a number of layers. The fact that this record came out in 2013 and not the ’70s is a bit of a surprise, because it feels right at home then. Meaning, of course, the album completely does what it sets out to do.

-By Andrew McNally

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