Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Costello & The Roots: What's So Funny?
Elvis Costello is a frequent subject on these pages. Quite often, the sentiment is the same. "He stopped making good records after Bruce Thomas left." I am not of that mind. If I had my druthers, Costello and the Attractions would still be making records, sure. But the genre-hopping albums old El has been making have kept me on my toes, and some of them are better than a few of those Attractions records.
He's at it again, this time with The Roots from Philadelphia.
Reading about "Wise Up Ghost" these last few weeks had made me less interested than I was upon first hearing about this collaboration. All this talk about revisiting older Costello tunes and sampling tracks from records I wasn't that fond of to begin with took the wind out of my sails. But then, what was I really expecting from this marriage? Elvis rapping? I knew The Roots could play rock and roll, but what would be the point?
The first single, "Walk Us Uptown," was released a few weeks ago, and as some predicted on these pages, it is not the best representation of what has come. Costello's voice on that first single sounds older and angrier, and with not much of a melody to work with, the hip-hop beats and textures wear thin. But elsewhere on this thrilling new record, Elvis & the band, anchored by one of the best drummers in the game, Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, have created mini-masterworks.
Songs like "Sugar Won't Work," with its classic Costello melody, greasey groove and Philly strings circa 1972, as well as the epic title track, are powerhouses of sound. "Tripwire," sampling Costello's "Satellite" from "Spike" is sweet and understated, feeling like something Marvin Gaye might have recorded in between "In Our Lifetime" and "Midnight Love." "Stick Out Your Tongue" is the "Pills & Soap" rewrite, and again, it's fresh and exciting. This is not a throwaway, or some vanity project.
I've made four complete passes through "Wise Up Ghost," each time better than the last. Fair warning though, if you've already lost your taste for Costello, reentry may prove difficult. But trust me, there's a lot of music here and it's very strong. Wipe the slate if it helps. Just don't ignore "Wise Up Ghost."
Full NPR stream.