New York Times, September 17, 2013

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Playing well with others, what they do best

Elvis Costello and the Roots / Brooklyn Bowl

Nate Chinen

Elvis Costello and the Roots began their encore at Brooklyn Bowl late Monday night with a wry lamentation, as churning and ominous as a gathering storm on the plains. The song was "Wise Up Ghost," which provides both a title and a centerpiece for their trenchant new album on Blue Note. Its delivery was impassioned, unruly, a bit grandiose — gripping, but in a crucially different way from the rest of the show.

Because otherwise, Mr. Costello, the eminent post-punk eclectic, and the Roots, hip-hop's protean house band, gave an extended lesson in collaborative thrift, beefing up some of his old songs and cleanly tackling most of their new ones. Both parties have made a recent sport out of playing well with others, and here they chased a lean intensity, leaving few scraps on the bone. The show was sold out, and its high celebrity quotient underscored the sense of a rare occasion, which is more than the songs were prepared to do.

Wise Up Ghost, the album, is a taut, sandpapery production, full of caustic pronouncements delivered with medium-cool affect. Mr. Costello sings evenly (if obliquely) about various forms of ruination and betrayal, against an assortment of vintage-distressed funk and soul grooves. At the foreground of every track is a drum part executed, with slippery precision, by Ahmir Thompson, aka Questlove, the brain behind the Roots, and a musical savant whose obsessiveness rivals Mr. Costello's.

Perhaps taking a cue from certain Marvin Gaye records, the result of this synthesis can feel festive even in the grip of despair, as on "Walk Us Uptown," the album's lead single:

"Will you walk us uptown
While our tears run in torrents
To suffer in silence
Or pray for some solace

"Wake Me Up," which opened the show at a prowling gait, was just as pointed: "There must be something better than this," Mr. Costello groused in the chorus, reusing a line from his recent partnership with the New Orleans soul magistrate Allen Toussaint. ("My thoughts return to vengeance, but I put up no resistance," goes another rueful line.)

There's a lot of strategic repurposing throughout "Wise Up Ghost," and there was even more in the show. Some of this was as straightforward as an older tune given a fresh makeover: the Roots, working with a strong horn section, brought a sinister funk vibe to "Shabby Doll" and turned up the heat on "Spooky Girlfriend," which also featured a spirited vocal turn by La Marisoul of the Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia.

And in the accumulative, deep-swirl crescendo on "I Want You," there was a knowing echo of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," by John Lennon. It's not hard to picture Questlove and Mr. Costello arriving together at that idea; in any case, another Lennon tune, "I Found Out," served as a rawboned final encore, plunging toward Afro-punk.

Other bits of repurposing were sneakier. "Tripwire," a waltz that featured guest vocal harmonies by Diane Birch, bears more than a casual resemblance to "Satellite." And on "Stick Out Your Tongue," Mr. Costello interpolated whole lyric swatches from not one but two tunes from the vault, "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" and "Pills And Soap." (One line, ripped well out of context, now suggests a hint of self-appraisal: "In time you can turn these obsessions into careers.")

Mr. Costello was in excellent, plangent voice throughout the show, which was archived online by And he was in textbook form: chewing gum, standing at a slouch, exuding his indifferent charisma. Even by the high standard of his collaborative history, he was notably invigorated by his company.

The Roots, meanwhile, now occupy a fascinating and maybe unprecedented position. Since proving wickedly adept with a variety format — Questlove and company will soon follow Jimmy Fallon from Late Night to The Tonight Show — the group has had a diminishing role for Black Thought (Tariq Trotter), its incisive workhorse of a rapper and frontman. He gamely does his part on Late Night, and he put in a token appearance on Wake Up! (G.O.O.D/Columbia/HomeSchool), the band's 2010 album with John Legend.

That he's nowhere to be found on Wise Up Ghost, a product of analogous style and political conscience, feels like a slight, and maybe a further sign of shifting ground. But if there's anything the Roots have proved in recent years, it's the danger of jumping to conclusions about their intent. Count that among the ways Mr. Costello fits right in.


New York Times, September 17, 2013

Nate Chinen reviews Elvis Costello and The Roots with La Marisoul and Diane Birch, Monday, September 16, 2013, Brooklyn Bowl, New York.


2013-09-17 New York Times photo 01 dw.jpg
Photo by Damon Winter.


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