Elvis Costello and the Roots – Wise Up Ghost (Blue Note/EMI) CD REVIEW

91403IT’S QUITE FITTING for this album to be on the Blue Note label, advocate of jazz and the avant-garde that the label traditionally was. Wise Up Ghost can’t be defined by either genre but it is basically experimental at its heart. Preferring Costello in his straight-out edgy pop guise, I tend to lose interest when he goes off on a tangent, with the exception of the string quartet and vocal presentation, The Juliet Letters, which is still magnificent 20 years on. Following not too far behind, in terms of a quality tangent, is this collaboration with Late Night With Jimmy Fallon house band, The Roots.

Mostly an out-and-out neo-soul affair that gets better as it goes along, the album jumps to and fro between new songs and older Costello lyrics atop newly composed music. The most successful of these, ‘(She Might Be A) Grenade’ with its cinematic orchestral parts that place you in the mind of Tom Wait’s ‘Potter’s Field’, resurrects from 2004 the Elvis and the Imposters lyric/song, ‘She’s Pulling Out The Pin’. The new version stands very well on its own as almost as enticing as its predecessor.

But other experiments of this nature here don’t fare so well, such as ‘Refuse To Be Saved’, a seemingly unnecessary rewrite of ‘Invasion Hit Parade’ from 1991’s Mighty Like A Rose. The closing chorus hook line, ‘If you do not co-operate with the invasion hit parade’, is disposed of completely and not replaced. The new version takes its title from the last line of the original song. Lyrically it still works. I can only assume Costello considered the words ‘invasion hit parade’ to be an overly dramatic extension of the original concept which is summed up quite nicely in the phrase ‘refuse to be saved’.

‘They’re hunting us down here with Liberty’s light/A handshaking double talking procession of the mighty.
Pursued by a T.V. crew and coming after them/
A limousine of singing stars and their brotherhood anthem.
The former dictator was impeccably behaved
They’re mopping up all the stubborn ones who just refuse to be saved.’

Elvis-Costello-The-Roots-Wise-Up-Ghost-608x608The strongest tracks coincidentally are the ones that take on the sheen of Prince tracks that included the sweeping orchestral arrangements of the late Clare Fischer. So enamoured with them was Prince that he would sometimes take an orchestra recording from a song and literally place it right inside a totally different song. The resulting dissonance gave the sound a creepy psychedelic character. It’s that feeling that comes across on Elvis songs here like ‘Cinco Minutos Con Vos’ and ‘Viceroy’s Row’. The latter song also employs a technique where some instrument parts are swung in triplets and some are not, making the rhythm seem very unstable – perhaps another influence of Prince or in fact the wider Minneapolis sound.

Wise Up Ghost warrants repeated listening. Its interesting minimalism is easy on the ear but doesn’t stop it sounding big and present. And there’s a lot on offer to reel in fans that grew up on a diet of pre-‘90s Elvis too. Some moments hark back to an earlier Costello, such as ‘Tripwire’ which sounds like a Goodbye Cruel World outtake.

But some that won’t budge will be those with a dislike for Costello’s voice, period. And unfortunately there has been little care taken with it on this album. Vocal tuning issues abound. Autotune isn’t necessary but it’s beyond me why someone wasn’t keeping an eye on it. If you’ll allow me to coin an acronym, I can only put it down to that 21st century idiosyncrasy, LPS: Lazy Producer Syndrome. PETER KEARNS

Sound = 3.5/5
Music = 3.5/5

More Peter Kearns at: www.thefreeformfilter.com/

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