Philadelphia Inquirer, September 18, 2013

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Wise Up Ghost, an
Elvis Costello/Questlove connection

Dan DeLuca

On the surface, the intergenerational partnership of Elvis Costello and the Roots — whose new album, Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note, 3½ star reviews3½ star reviews3½ star reviews3½ star reviews), comes out Tuesday — might seem an odd coupling.

After all, the 59-year-old, still-prolific songwriter is British, and the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon house band, anchored by 42-year-old drummer-producer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, is Philadelphian. He's white, they're black. They're hip-hop, he's rock.

They have more in common than immediately meets the ear, however. Both Costello (who plays a sold-out show at the Merriam Theater on Nov. 10) and the Roots are serious-minded musical omnivores, and serial collaborators. He has worked with Allen Toussaint, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Burt Bacharach, with whom he's currently writing an opera. The Roots have previously made full-length albums with John Legend, Betty Wright, and Jay Z, and demonstrate their wide-ranging dexterity five nights a week on Fallon.

Wise Up Ghost wears its ambition on its black-and-white album cover design, a homage to City Lights Books' 1956 edition of Allen Ginsberg's Beat Generation salvo Howl and Other Poems. That's an overreach not entirely out of character for the artist born Declan MacManus, who after all had the cheek to rename himself after the king of rock-and-roll.

When Costello and the Roots first got cracking on Wise Up Ghost — after the singer, who lives in New York, had made several guest appearances on Fallon — they contemplated simply reinterpreting the Brit singer's vast catalogs.

There apparently were too many fresh ideas percolating to settle for that. But the 12 songs, which marry the band's lean boom bap, punctuated by stabs of horns and keyboards, with the singer's close-miked, impressively limber vocals, do pointedly draw from Costello's past.

Wise Up Ghost is by no means a conventional hip-hop album — EC does not rap, and Roots emcee Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter is nowhere to be heard. But Costello, Thompson, and coproducer Steven Mandel freely pull from the singer's past, digging through the crates of his oeuvre.

So the elegantly ominous "Tripwire" mixes like instrumentation with a sample from "Satellite," from Costello's 1989 Spike, and the snap-to-attention funk "Sugar Won't Work" adds an excerpt of "You Left Me in the Dark" from 2003's North. And longtime fans will note that the seething "Stick Out Your Tongue" is a retooled take on the 1983 Falklands War protest song "Pills & Soap" in disguise.

The song snakes around dark alleys of desire and recrimination, and Costello sounds thoroughly enlivened by the opportunity to surround his noir, mysteriously encoded lyrics with as richly rhythmic a backdrop as that so skillfully provided by the Roots.

(Much of the album was recorded in the rehearsal space on the Fallon set. "Once we began to work, I was in a studio no bigger than a large cupboard," Costello told the Daily Mail. "Never mind the new album, what we really need to consider is whether Questlove should be the next Doctor Who. He works in such a confined space I think he is actually a Time Lord.")

Wise Up Ghost is not a flawless record; the title track is stilted and grandiose. But most everything, from the bilingual "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," featuring a vocal by La Marisoul from the Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia, to the gorgeously vindictive "Viceroy's Row," comes together seamlessly. Down on the lower right corner, the Wise Up Ghost album cover mimics the Howl design in announcing it is Number One in a series. A sequel would be welcome.


Philadelphia Inquirer, September 18, 2013

Dan DeLuca reviews Wise Up Ghost.


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