Aging British pub-rocker Elvis Costello and hip-hop’s greatest band The Roots are, depending on how you look at it, either a progressive or an odd pairing. However, the two are certainly at a stage in their respective careers where experimentation is expected, if not necessarily welcomed or desired by longtime fans. For Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs, their new collaborative album, the recipe is simple subtraction and addition: the Roots’ frontman, emcee Black Thought, is replaced by Costello. Sans rap, it’s still the same powerhouse band, with drummer and music guru Questlove on the drums and the rest of the band’s members – over the years they’ve changed a lot – presumably the same as those that comprise the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk show.
The Roots more than do Costello justice and vice versa, placing Wise Up Ghost right up there with the well-received works from hip-hop-associated blues-rockers Robert Glasper and Gary Clark Jr. Besides being a collaboration between two respected brands in their respective genres, Wise Up Ghost is sheer marketing genius because it allows for a natural cross-pollination of fan bases. Just as The Roots’ largely hip-hop fan base has likely only heard of Elvis Costello in passing, the latter’s fans may have had little to no exposure to The Roots.
Released on legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, Wise Up Ghost has little in common with any previous album from The Roots and even less with hip-hop. Instead, Costello’s gruffy voice is instantly in cahoots with The Roots’ soundscapes, which range from slow to mid-tempo and stylistically from progressive rock to blues. The album has a vintage feel and a stripped-down theme, as echoed by the record’s plain cover art, and it plays out like a 1970s film soundtrack. On some songs, such as “Walk Us Uptown,” Questlove’s drums drive the groove, while on others like “SUGAR Won’t’ Work” and “REFUSE To Be Saved,” the guitar licks take the lead. Costello’s voice is a constant and consistent presence that is essentially an instrument itself. For lyrics-discerning fans, a lyric sheet will be mandatory.
Being that Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs is an experimental collaboration between more standard projects for both The Roots and Elvis Costello, it didn’t arrive with hype and ridiculously high expectations. Instead, with the calendar dotted with so many hyped releases in the weeks before and after its release, it is as understated a release as could come from Grammy Award-winning musicians. However, the music and Costello’s singing are far from understated; they are simply really good.