Elvis Costello & The Roots "Wise Up Ghost

Summer is over.  I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Sweater Season made its grand arrival this weekend.  The time for feel-good, cheery pop songs and page-turning beach novels is over.  With cold weather comes responsibility.  It’s time to take a closer look at your world both inside and out and that’s just what you’ll get on Wise Up Ghost – the new collaboration between Elvis Costello and The Roots.

What began as an offhanded, backstage comment during a taping of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has blossomed into 12 songs full of emotion, politics, and an intense feeling of unease.  Costello sounds as fiery and explosive as he ever has.  The Roots embrace their legacy of forward thought and classic musicianship.  One of the highlights of this record – found in the opening seconds of “Walk Us Uptown” – could have been an accident.  But, maybe it was entirely planned.  The audible blips from somebody’s Apple computer being turned up tell us that these musicians with undeniable pasts are looking toward the future on this album.

To say that The Roots are versatile is an understatement.  They’ve crafted some of hip-hop’s finest records.  They’ve worked with legends like Jay-Z.  They’ve worked with future legends like, well, John Legend.  They’ve parlayed all of their credibility and creativity into a stint as the house band on a late night television show, yet have not lost a single ounce of that all-important, yet easily scarred, cred.  Costello’s versatility shows on Wise Up Ghost, too.  His voice cuts like finely shattered glass on the album opener, “Walk Us Uptown”.  He soothes some of those rips and tears with his croon on the album closer, “If I Could Believe”.  Both Elvis Costello and The Roots shatter all expectations on this album that, frankly, could have been a hard-falling, soft-hitting vanity project.

Elvis Costello is but one man.  The Roots, however, are a large band.  Most of the eight members appear at different places on Wise Up Ghost.  There are some surprise appearances on this record as well.  Bassist Pino Palladino (The Who, John Mayer Trio) adds his mastery of the low end to “If I Could Believe”.  Raymond Angry (John Legend, Naughty By Nature) adds his signature organ tone to “Sugar Won’t Work”.  Up-and-comer Diane Birch adds smoky vocals to “Tripwire”.  If there is one glaring oversight on this album, it’s the lack of rapping.  The Roots – versatile as they are – are at their core a masterful hip-hop group.  A verse or two spit by Black Thought would push this album from 9 to 10. 

The concept of this album is high.  The musicianship is deft.  The fact that it actually exists is promising.  The album cover – bold in the simplicity of its plain black and white boxes and text – tells us through a simple “Number One” that this may not be all we hear from this unlikely team.  Could there be a Number Two?  Time will tell.


Joey Spehar
The Morning Mix