Elvis Costello & The Roots
“Wise Up Ghost”
Elvis Costello plays well with others. On a wide range of albums, he has integrated his sound with musicians as massive, accomplished and disparate as Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Anne Sofie Von Otter and Allen Toussaint.
The Roots have proven just as adept as adapting. As the house band on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” they must mutate their sound nightly to match guest players from any style on the musical map.
If nothing else, that makes the new hook-up disc by Costello and Questlove’s band a meeting of chameleons. But is flexibility enough to create an apt sonic mean?
In this case, we get far more than that. “Wise Up Ghost” contains some of the most fleshy and smart work of either act’s career. It’s a perfect nexus of talents, reining in Costello’s excesses while giving the Roots a new, literary context.
For Elvis, “Wise Up Ghost” provides a virtual fountain of youth. It’s the youngest, hardest sound he has put forth in years. The Roots’ hip-hop chops provide the elixir. Their hugely funky beats provide a corollary to Costello’s rougher rock-and-soul years. The pitched dynamic best recalls the one Costello forged on 1980’s “Get Happy,” when he provided an eccentric, English reinterpretation of the Tamla-Motown sound.
For this mix, Elvis hasn’t gone hip-hop (thank God). He simply connected Questlove’s taut, sharp beats — a clear product of today — to his own erudite sensibility.
The band’s nuanced attention to rhythm corrects Costello’s tendency to over-elaborate his melodies. The Roots streamline him, grounding his high-flying lyrics in the groove. And amazing grooves they are.
“Walk Us Uptown” uses the complex distortions and rich bass of hip-hop to create an otherworldly cool. “Refuse to Be Saved,” with its ’70s clavinet, has a fat-bottomed funk drawing on the noise hooks of the avant-garde. Many songs employ strings in ways as innovative as Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes found on their forward-thinking soul recordings.
The striking and sophisticated use of rhythm in no way eclipses the CD’s melody. The hardest songs have tunes you can sing, like the sumptuous, R&B ballad “Tripwire.” Even the monochromatic melody of the title track rivets. Lyrically, the album may paint things black, spewing one dire social and political pronouncement after another. But the music sweetens the dread with excitement.