Coachella Valley Weekly, October 10, 2013

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Coachella Valley Weekly
  • 2013 October 10

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Wise Up Ghost

Elvis Costello & The Roots

Eleni P. Austin

Elvis Costello is the most adventurous man in pop music today. Costello was born Declan Patrick McManus and grew up around music. His father, Ross, was a featured vocalist with the Joe Loss Orchestra, (Great Britain's answer to Glenn Miller). His mother, Lillian, ran a record shop. An obsessive Beatles fan, Elvis began collecting records as a child.

By his early teens Elvis began composing his own songs. Influenced by such disparate artists as Frank Sinatra, the Grateful Dead and Randy Newman, he played in a band, Flip City. It wasn't long before he struck out on his own as D.P. Costello.

By 1977, Costello was straddling the musical styles of Punk and Pub Rock. He had acquired a bulldog of a manager, Jake Riviera, (who re-christened him Elvis Costello, several months before the King of Rock & Roll met his ignominious end.) Riviera had also co-founded the burgeoning punk label, Stiff Records, releasing the first official British Punk record, the debut from the Damned.

Costello used up his sick days as a data programmer to record his debut in just 24 hours He was accompanied by an American band called Clover, which later became the News, backing Huey Lewis. (Clover also included future Doobie Brother John McFee.) The result was My Aim Is True produced by Nick Lowe.

When CBS Records (ne' Sony) held a conference in London, Costello, armed with only an acoustic guitar, set up in front of their headquarters and began busking. The stunt paid off, and he was signed to the giant record conglomerate.

Costello quickly assembled a proper backing band, The Attractions, and set about conquering America. In quick succession, they released a series of concise and articulate albums, highlighted by Costello's sophisticated wordplay and succinct song craft.

Riding the crest of the New Wave movement, (the softer side of Punk), Costello's first three albums were characterized as his "angry young man" phase. By his fourth effort, the Soul-infused Get Happy, Costello was writing songs that channeled the hard-charging R&B of Stax and Motown. It became clear that he wouldn't be pigeon-holed by the narrow confines of New Wave.

By 1981, Costello upped the ante considerably by heading to Nashville and recording Almost Blue. Produced by Country stalwart Billy Sherrill, Elvis and the Attractions recorded a flat out Country Western album, featuring songs made famous By Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline.

It was an explicit challenge to his fans to embrace other styles of his music. It was just the beginning. In 1982 he delivered the sparkling Imperial Bedroom, a baroque delight equally inspired by the Beatles and Cole Porter. That was followed with Punch The Clock a pure pop effort featuring a horn section and back up vocalists.

Costello's passion for different musical genres was limitless. He delved deeper into Country and Folk with King Of America. Spike, released in 1989, featured collaborations with The Dirty Brass Band, Allen Toussaint and the Chieftains. Mighty Like A Rose embraced the ornate pop stylings of 60s bands like the Left Banke.

By 1993 Costello had hooked up with a String Section, the Brodsky Quartet and together they created a song cycle based on imaginary letters sent to Juliet Capulet.

Celebrated collaborations with giants like Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach followed. Costello produced the Specials' debut the Pogues' sophomore effort and a pop album for classical vocalist Sofie von Otter. He composed the score for the BBC series G.B.H.

Just before his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, Costello went back to his roots with his new backing band the Imposters, recording the crackling When I Was Cruel Of course his next effort, North, charted an opposite course of Torch and Jazz songs. After two divorces, Costello finally found his soulmate in Jazz chanteuse Diana Krall.

During the first decade of the 21st century Costello recorded an Americana album in Mississippi, created the orchestral classical work, II Sogno, collaborated with Allen Toussaint on an album inspired by Hurricane Katrina and made a flat out Rock record, Momofuku, in Los Angeles.

Reconnecting with best mate and production pal T-Bone Burnett, Costello made a Bluegrass record in 2009 Even his leftover songs, released in 2010 as National Ransom, were eclectic and impressive.

Costello has excelled in confounding expectations. His die-hard fans have stuck with him every step of the way. And what a long strange trip it has been.

Now Costello has embarked on another ambitious journey, hooking up with the Roots to record his 27th studio album, Wise Up Ghost. The eight-piece group is best known as the house band for the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and the TV show is where Costello initially collaborated with the band.

The Hip Hop collective, led by Amir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter has been around for 20 years. Rather than relying on beats, their music is a tight amalgam of Jazz, Funk and Soul. ?uestlove especially, is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of music.

The first three songs on the album, "Walk Us Uptown," "Sugar Won't Work" and "Refuse To Be Saved" set the tone for this musical pilgrimage. "Walk.." matches electro-static rhythms to pulsating organ fills and sweet, soulful guitar licks. The lyrics mine the collective malaise and uncertainty that grips society.. "Some hearts are sinking and some hearts are a-flutter, Some scoop gold from the dirt in the gutter/Or swallow the earth pouring into your mouth, as they bury us upright, saying 'everything's alright." "Walk" folds into the string-laden "Sugar Won't Work." Here a rippling rhythm and trip hammer guitars segue into Costello's layered vocals which feel creamy and Soul-tastic.

"Refuse..." is powered by funked-up bass lines and stuttery organ fills. Staccato horn blasts pinball through a treacly string section, allowing Costello to channel his inner Superfly. The lyrics insist "incidentally the revolution WILL be televised."

On several cuts Costello harvest parts from his older songs like a mad scientist creating a funky Frankenstein. Astute Costello-philes will immediately realize EC has completely re-purposed the lyrics from his 2004 song, "Bedlam" for "Wake Me Up." The Roots provide a cool strut musical foundation for lyrics that feel like a fever dream of biblical proportions...

"I've got this phosphorescent portrait of gentle Jesus meek and mild / I've got this harlot that I'm stuck with carrying another man's child." Salted in the mix, Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas unspools a scabrous and skittery solo.

"Tripwire" is somber and sweet, blending tinkling sleigh bells that originally appeared in Costello's 1989 song "Satellite " Darting between rattling percussion and a Second Line style horn section, Costello offers cryptic examples of history repeating.

The lyrics for "Stick Out Your Tongue" are lifted whole from "Pills And Soap," a Punch The Clock track that offered a trenchant critique of Thatcherism and the Falklands conflict in 1983. The melody is new, adding serpentine bass, menacing wah-wah guitar and sultry, layered vocals. The lyrics remain labyrinthine and seamless... "With a hardline in hypocrisy there are tears of mediocrity for the fag ends {British slang for cigarette butts} of the aristocracy."

Finally on "(She Might Be A) Grenade," descending organ fills and fluttery strings lock in with a guitar figure that was lifted from Costello's 1991 song "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)."

Other interesting tracks include "Come The Meantimes" which incorporates a fractious meter, buzz saw guitar and call & response vocals. A dinging bell repeatedly punctuates each refrain. (For any Breaking Bad fan, the bell might echo Hector Salamanca's deadly apparatus and Gus Fring's sudden demise). The lyrics question the narcotic power of religion... "Blossoms fragrant opening, poppies full of opium / Phony prophets offer hope, that's a different kind of dope."

Both "Viceroy's Row" and the title track address this country's current financial struggles. "Viceroy" blends sharp, syncopated horn runs, and a stutter- step cadence with Costello's lush, multi-tracked vocals. The lyrics point up the dichotomy between the 1% "haves" and the 99% "have-nots."

The opening notes on Wise Up Ghost quote Costello's torchy 2003 ballad, "Can You Be True." This End-Times tone poem is anchored by ramshackle percussion and strafing guitar chords.

The only misstep here is "Cinco Minutos Con Vos." It isn't a bad song, but the addition of female vocalist La Marisol singing in Spanish feels intrusive and distracting.

The album closes with "If I Could Believe." The only composition here credited solely to Elvis Costello. It's a stripped down affair, just vocals piano and bass. The lyrics generally question blind faith - in God, love and country. Costello summons his most soulful and yearning vocals. A string section offers an elegiac coda.

The deluxe version of Wise Up Ghost adds three bonus songs that act as a wistful postscript. "My New Haunt" is a brittle symphony wherein rattle-trap percussion, tinkly piano, distorted guitars and swirly strings collide "Can You Hear Me" is an intriguing mash up of two Costello classics, "Radio Silence" and "Complicated Shadows," wed to a soporific rhythm. Lastly, "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings" reaffirms Costello's majestic vocal powers.

Elvis Costello teaming with the Roots seemed like a sketchy proposition. But longtime Roots producer Steven Mandel really took the reins here. The disparate elements blend perfectly, the result is one of the best albums of 2013.

Back in 1982, Columbia Records famously proclaimed Elvis Costello a genius. (Much to his dismay) For once, it's okay to believe the hype.

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Coachella Valley Weekly, October 10, 2013


Eleni P. Austin profiles Elvis Costello and reviews Wise Up Ghost.

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