Elvis Costello and The Roots: Digital Duet
ELVIS COSTELLO, a British singer-songwriter, is known for his rock rants and intricate ballads. He has recorded with dozens of artists in various genres; he wrote a musical with Burt Bacharach, has sung duets with Anne Sofie Von Otter, a Swedish opera star, and has composed a song cycle with the Brodsky Quartet, a British string ensemble. His most recent project in musical shape-shifting involved teaming up with The Roots, an American hip-hop band, for “Wise Up Ghost”, a category-defying album released in September. For Mr Costello, this latest collaboration is a natural by-product of the digital age.
“Every part of ’Wise Up Ghost’ was recorded discrete from the other parts,” he explains. “After I had recorded all of my vocals, they added their parts to that, almost as if they were scoring a film. The horns appeared, and guitar, and a monstrous double drum kit. No two instruments were played together, except the horns. It was written, recorded and arranged in dialogue between two or three people speaking in a chain.”
The project began after one of Mr Costello’s appearances on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”, an American television show for which The Roots perform as the house band. He says Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the band’s drummer and co-founder, piqued his interestwhen he made an obscure reference to Mr Costello’s music as he was leaving the stage. Apparently the band “knew all about my records,” he says, “and I knew quite a bit about theirs.”
The recording of ”Wise Up Ghost” happened in bits and pieces, over e-mail or in moments in the dressing room at NBC studios, where the Fallon show tapes. The music is a natural progression from The Roots 2011 concept album “Undun”, and is Mr Costello’s most exciting and satisfying foray in at least a decade. Neither rock’n’roll nor hip-hop, the album is cinematic and cerebral, funky and fussy, its sound carved by Mr Costello’s clear-cut tenor and Questlove’s percussive snare. The album might have benefitted from the rhymes of Roots MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, but his rapping is oddly absent.
Mr Costello says “Wise Up Ghost” is influenced by tape-loop methods pioneered by Sir George Martin, who produced the Beatles albums in the 1960s. The songs, which steal verses from Mr Costello’s back catalogue, are a cut-and-paste collage of lyrics, melodies, beats and strings. The lead track, “Walk Us Uptown”, struts with the same sass as his 1977 song “Watching the Detectives”. The dreamy doo-wop of “Tripwire” grabs a glockenspiel from the intro of “Satellite” from his 1989 album Spike.
“You can only get this kind of sound with a switch,” says Mr Costello. The music “borrows from a lot of the drop techniques in dub and hip-hop, and you obviously don’t play that way [live] in a room with four musicians. You can get a thrilling result when you do, but you don’t get this music.”
Mr Costello does not have plans for a formal tour with The Roots. He also says he isn’t seeking street credibility from the collaboration.
“Records are art objects, that is if you put anything you care about into them,” he says. “They’re not commerce. You’re making them because you want to provoke interest in the ideas and the music that you’ve got. I’m not even attempting to be commercial now.”
This story was published by The Economist.
Photo: Press image
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