Musical collaborations rarely get as unexpected as on the recently released Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs. The album is the product of British musician Elvis Costello teaming up with America’s Philadelphia-based hip-hop and R&B band, The Roots. The only thing I can find common between the two collaborators is that though both parties have, respectively, earned oodles of critical acclaim through their careers, neither has become as popular as I think they deserve to be. It’s a pity that more people don’t listen to either Costello or The Roots even though both are very, very influential musical entities.
Come together, right now: Questlove’s (right) drumming is refreshing and Costello often sings highly literate lyrics (Photo: Dan Hallman/AP)
Take The Roots
. Starting in the late 1980s, the group’s co-frontmen, drummer Questlove (or ?uestlove) and Black Thought, have been among the early innovators of rap and hip-hop music in America, using live music and jazz and soul-influenced compositions to back their spoken lyrics. But although they have influenced legions of hip-hop, rap and R&B musicians and have won a few Grammys, they are not, sadly, massively popular. They ought to be. I went back and surfed The Roots catalogue, beginning with 1994’s Do You Want More?!!!??! to 2004’s The Tipping Point to 2011’s Undun. Every one of those albums is a great listen. The music, particularly Questlove’s fabulous drumming, is refreshing and never monotonous as some hip-hop albums (sorry, Jay-Z, Kanye, Diddy, Li’l Wayne, etc.) can get and the lyrics are squeaky clean by contemporary hip-hop standards (which have improved, incidentally, after plumbing the depths of vulgarity a few years back).
Like The Roots, Costello too has never been hugely popular, although most of his nearly 25 albums in a career spanning four decades have met with critical acclaim. It is difficult to pigeon-hole Costello’s music. He has hopped genres – punk rock, pub rock, folk, blues, music hall and so on. Like liquorice, some love his slightly nasal style of vocals; others hate it. But his songs have highly literate lyrics with depth and maturity. He’s what I’d call a musician’s musician. As I did with The Roots’ discography, before I started with Wise Up Ghost, I went back and heard a couple of Costello albums. Choosing what to pick was difficult given how prolific he has been. But I zeroed in on three – 2002’s When I Was Cruel, a treat both musically and lyrically, 2003’s North, and 2010’s brilliant National Ransom, a record produced by the legendary American musician and producer, T-Bone Burnett. I know Elvis Costello has albums dating back to 1977 but if you want a quick introduction to his music, I’d recommend When I Was Cruel and National Ransom, especially the latter. North, I’d suggest only to the serious liquorice lovers – Costello sounds whiny and depressing on this album and the music is stripped down to a bare minimum so it makes him feel sound more so (by the way, the liquorice reference I have borrowed from Jerry Garcia who back in the 1970s likened the Grateful Dead’s audience to liquorice lovers!).
Having boned up on both – The Roots and Costello – I took a shot at their collaboration, this year’s Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs.
Although Costello is known for his genre hopping nature – on National Ransom you will find songs representing everything from old English music hall, folkie ballads, old-fashioned rock, alternative rock, country and everything in between all of those – on his collaboration with hip-hop’s high priests, The Roots, he doesn’t exactly do rap. Instead, it is Costello’s cerebral lyrics and singing, accompanied by some super groovy music by The Roots makes a really extraordinary collaboration. Even though Costello has explored many genres in his long career, beginning with punk and pub rock and then going down the folk, rock, country and even the New Orleans’ route (check out 2006’s The River In Reverse, a collaboration with New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint), teaming up with The Roots has produced an album that magically marries genres that cannot have been more disparate. You can listen to Wise Up Ghost for Costello’s lyrics (the standouts include the songs, Sugar Won’t Work, Tripwire and Stick Out Your Tongue), which are, as always, never banal; or, you can enjoy the excellent groove that The Roots (few singers could hope for a better backing band) lay down; or, better still, you could do both.