Last year we all fell in love with the collaboration efforts of an old legend and a young genius, when David Byrne teamed up with St. Vincent to release Love This Giant. It was one of the better collaboration albums in recent years, and one my favorites of 2012. This year, we are gifted another equally jarring, but equally great combo with the release of Wise Up Ghost, a collaboration between Elvis Costello and The Roots. This is a collaboration that I don’t think many people would have ever predicted would happen, but one that is easy to fall in love with. After meeting each other on the set of Jimmy Fallon, the beloved legend and the hip hopsters from Philly decided to embark on a series of recording sessions, that after a full year of efforts will be released tomorrow. And if you knew what was good for your ears, mind and soul, you would not hesitate to acquire a copy.
The music backing the album is something of a reincarnated Curtis Mayfield record. It’s funky, it’s jazzy, and it’s as cool as a cucumber. It just further proves how much of a technical musical genius Questlove actually is. I believe that a large part of why this album works so well is his extensive knowledge of song. Elvis’ voice and guitar mesh so well with The Roots’ sound on this album, you’d think this a band of seasoned veterans. Oh wait, that is exactly what it is. I guess when you have that much musical genius in one room, you aren’t going to go wrong blending sounds together.
I had never really known Elvis Costello all that well until I saw him play a solo show in 2008 that changed my perspective on the man forever. Not that I ever disliked his work, I just didn’t know it very well. After watching him perform that night, I was fairly convinced that this man was one of the most naturally gifted stage performers I’d ever seen. The way he uses a mic and guitar onstage is something like I’d never seen before. He is more than a unique voice and an incredible lyrical vocabulary, he was an entertainer, and a damn fine one at that. So when thinking about this collaboration, it makes sense that this pairing would naturally just happen. The Roots are about the end-all-be-all of modern live performers. I don’t think that there is really a better group of entertainers out there. So the fact that these two acts found each other was bound to happen really.
The album kicks off with “Walk Us Uptown”, a song that sounds like the streets of Manhattan. You can instantly feel New York sounds and influences just pumping through this music. It also almost sounds like a Damon Albarn project of sorts, until you realize how hard hitting the instrumentation is and that voice bellowing through the distorted vocal effects is a bit deeper and more nasally than Damon, it is in fact the one and only Elvis Costello. Then there is just a point at about 0:37 seconds in where it is just undeniably Questlove that is behind that drum kit. I wouldn’t say this song sets the pace for the album, but it gives you an idea of what this album is capable of.
From there you have highlights such as the funk fest back-to-back combo of “Refuse to Be Saved” and “Wake Me Up”. Then comes the most classic-sounding song on the album. Something that almost sounds like it was being played by the band in the prom scene of Back to The Future just about when Marty McFly is in the car making out with his mother (gross). The song is “Tripwire”. It’s my least favorite of the album, but I still respect what the song is trying to accomplish. There hasn’t really been anything like this in terms of popular music in many years. The album continues on and gradually gets a bit more experimental, “Cinco Minutos Con Vos (Five Minutes With You)” being the most avant-garde reach of the album, but still extremely enjoyable, and very sexy.
The songs aren’t quite as straight forward as either a Roots or Elvis Costello album would be on there own. But the thing I like most from this album is how it got both bands to step into realms that they normally wouldn’t on their own. It’s a good change up for two artists that are already hard to try a pin down. The biggest disappointment from the collaboration venture is the fact that Black Thought did not show up for the party in any way. I understand that this is more of the “Elvis show” when it comes to lyrics, but it would have been very interesting to see some interplay between two lyrical geniuses of such different genres. We can only hope he shows up for the live performances.
Can’t Miss: “Walk us Uptown”, “Sugar Won’t Work”, “Stick Out Your Tongue”, “Viceroy’s Row”, “Wake Up Ghost”
Can’t Hit: “Tripwire”, “If I Could Believe”