Elvis Costello & The Roots – “Wise up ghost and other songs”

A massive matchup, but missing some magic
Review – “Wise up ghost and other songs” 2013.10.03

Elvis Costello & The RootsThe new album from The Roots and Elvis Costello, “Wise Up Ghost” will please fans of each musical icon. It’s a nice sounding, well produced album, but lacking that magic both The Roots and Costello have shown in the past. There is nothing shocking, thrilling or overly fresh in this pair-up as some might have expected. This is a collaboration that had many a little surprised and wondering how well it would work. It isn’t a complete success, but is far from a failure. Both parties have done their share of collaborations and have reached points in their respective careers where an album like this isn’t as surprising as it may have been some 10 years ago. This album is a comment on the music industry and the state of music today. New ideas must be explored in order to survive, today’s music must exist free of genre boundaries and restrictions. What can you call the music on this album? I guess it depends what perspective you approach it from. Is it rock? Funk? Soul? Hip-hop? Does it really matter?

This album doesn’t feature either act straying very far from their comfort zone. This is fine and makes for a good album for fans, but misses out on the potential to make something fresh. Part of what makes The Roots great is more than the skill of the band, but the flow and exchange with hip-hop MCs, most notably lead MC and co-founder of the group, Black Thought. He is left off the album entirely. This is what keeps the album from becoming something truly exciting. There was a great opportunity to pair Costello not only with the band, but also with The Roots MCs and beatboxers associated with The Roots, both past and present. I don’t think every track needs an accompanying vocalist with Costello, but there was missed potential by not including any.

That said, Costello’s delivery does work well with an R&B and soul sound. Most of the time here he is singing in a low register, and it plays perfectly into the overall sound. My only complaint is at times this deep singing comes off as a mumble or a little sleepy. The Roots are a very good backing band that can adapt to almost any situation as evidenced by their recent work on the late night with Jimmy Fallon show. The band falls into the trap of following a little too much here though; Costello is the man in charge. The album often has the feel like Costello is simply performing with a very good hip-hop/soul band rather than a true Roots/Costello collaboration. I am approaching the album being far more familiar with The Roots than Costello. I realize many of the songs on this album are self-referential and hark on past themes and lyrics that Costello fans may find more meaningful. The most interesting track musically for me is “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” featuring vocals from La Marisoul, lead singer from the Mexican-American band, La Santa Cecilia. This kind of great vocal collaboration is initially what I was expecting when I heard of the joint album. I pictured Black Thought and Costello exchanging a back-and-forth, while the band would lay down some funky rhythms. If I was lucky I thought maybe we would hear from some past Roots MCs or beatboxers throw down too. I realize this may have been expecting a bit much.

It’s not that this is a bad album, it’s just I can see potential for much more if both parties reached further out of their comfort zone. Putting the MC issue aside, it did seem like Questlove and the band were following Costello’s lead too much instead of forcing him into an unexpected or unexplored style. The band has the skill to play in many styles and too often the groove was chilled and laid back following Costello’s lead. They could have really explored some hard funk workouts and jams, this in turn would have really made Costello work.

This is a good album that showcases the strong talents of both parties, but ultimately misses out on an opportunity to make something truly significant. I rate “Wise Up Ghost” 3.7 out of 5. It’s a good listen and will please fans of both Roots and Costello, but not something that will stand out in the great back catalogs for either.

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James Mallion
james@smashingmag.net

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