This is the thing about The Roots. Aside from their track record as a rap group that has seen virtually no missteps since their debut album ‘Organix’ in 1993, drummer/producer Questlove’s wealth of knowledge and reverence for music in general underpins it all. Questlove himself has contributed a great deal more to music outside of The Roots’ discography in collaboration with a who’s who of talent both current and “old school.” During what some would call The Roots’ best years, Brother Question has had a lot to do with D’Angelo’s successful run (and his recent return) and creating the foundation of what we now know as ‘neo-soul,’ which is home to many musicians to whom I have a personal affinity.
Lately, The Roots Crew as a whole have joined in on these collaborative efforts to produce some timeless work with some artists you hear from regularly (John Legend) and others that younger folks may have needed to be introduced to (Al Green, Betty Wright). Elvis Costello is among those names and the most recent to produce a collaboration with The Roots.
Costello got his start in the late 70s and hasn’t strayed from the music since. ‘Wise Up Ghost’ is Costello’s new record, and it further establishes the consistency of both acts participating.
So for starters, this album is cool. Sure, you don’t generally check album reviews to have someone say that, but that’s how I’ve always seen Elvis Costello and his music. It speaks to The Roots’ ability to get on the same page with the artists they work with on these collaborative albums. With ‘Wise Up Ghost’ and past efforts, these guys seem to easily be able to find the groove these lead vocalists are used to. The music ALWAYS fits. ‘Wise Up Ghost’ is just as good as Al Green’s ‘Lay It Down’ record in terms of how they sound like Elvis Costello and Al Green albums, respectively. They aren’t “modernized” and certainly not hip-hop makeover type records (sorry, people…no Black Thought verses on this one.) Past attempts of older musicians to make a comeback have sometimes been hampered by things like this. The Roots know how to play to pretty much anyone’s strengths (they even made Miley Cyrus sound pretty good on a recent episode of Jimmy Fallon.)
‘Wise Up Ghost’ starts with ‘Walk Us Uptown.’ It’s an upbeat groove with Costello’s signature socially-conscious lyricism. The beginning of the track might trick you into thinking it’s one of those hip-hop makeovers I mentioned, but the beat settles into something that sounds natural for Elvis to work with. This first song blends into my favorite track of the album, ‘Sugar Won’t Work.’ I love the bass on this track and how Elvis’s vocal range is used. From here to the conclusion of the album, the sounds just fit well together. They’re supposed to, I know, but you get a lot of music these days where artists just get together because it makes sense from a financial standpoint. You can’t always hear the mutual respect from the involved parties in their performance. With ‘Wise Up Ghost,’ Elvis Costello making music with The Roots makes just as much sense as Elvis Costello making music with Paul McCartney. There’s no “lowest common denominator”- style records on this album. I thought that was worth mentioning. You’ll hear equal parts of both acts, without one overpowering the other. There’s no 70-30 or 60-40…this is a 50-50 collaboration (Teddy Pendergrass reference…Philadelphia…I had to.)
I love the fact that The Roots do this from time to time. In this fast-moving society, sometimes truly great artists can be criminally forgotten or swept away by the latest trend. ‘Wise Up Ghost’ is a great introduction of Elvis Costello to the younger generation of listeners. Lyrically, it leaves nothing to be desired and…if you check out YouTube, the live performances that this album produced are great to see. You’re treated to some upbeat tracks, ballads (check out the song ‘Tripwire’…amazing,) and laid-back jazzy grooves (‘Stick Out Your Tongue’ and ‘(She Might Be A) Grenade.’) Questlove and The Roots is the most important thing to music right now. For those paying attention, they will eventually bring the best things about music back to the forefront. At least I hope they will. Kudos all around for ‘Wise Up Ghost.’