Elvis Costello departed England many years ago. He left the second wave British Invasion punk pop scene of the ’70s behind, due in large part to the knock-out one-two-three-four punch of his amazing run of long playing albums and accompanying singles. He followed these up with the much broader strokes of Imperial Bedroom, the country-western gem Almost Blue and the brilliant precursor to much alt-Americana, King of America.
It was clear that Elvis was in it for the long haul and wanted to be regarded as more than just another faded angry young new waver as he aged and matured as a composer. It was a smart career move. Here we are 30+ years later and the man who would be Elvis has in the interim become one of pop music’s most beloved songwriters tackling (mostly successfully) rock, jazz, classical, soundtracks, country, funky New Orleans soul and all manner of pop music betwixt and between, this side of Cole Porter.
Heck, he’s even put out a pretty compelling moody jazz-tinged song cycle in 5.1 surround sound (the oft-overlooked and challenging North collection). His nearly-two-seasons long Sundance Channel program Spectacle is essential viewing for any fan of popular music (available on Blu-ray too!). I’m almost tempted to call him a senior spokesman for a generation but I think Bruce Springsteen has that title fairly well wrapped up.
Here we are in 2013, and last I heard Elvis is now living mostly in New York with his wife, jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall and their children. So its not surprising he is immersing himself in the Big Apple’s music scene, appearing a number of times on Jimmy Fallon’s TV show in particular and striking up a friendship with the fine house band there, The Roots.
The result of that friendship is Wise Up Ghost, a 12-song musical photo album with tales of the city and its peoples. Accordingly, the cover of the album is an homage to the San Francisco’s City Lights Pocket Poets series of books, particularly Allan Ginsberg’s Howl.
With hip hop and 70s soul flavors inevitable, Elvis and the Roots have put together some compelling new music that looks back as much as it looks forward.
Like Elvis’ brilliant collaboration with Allen Toussaint a number of years back (The River in Reverse, 2006), or even 2004’s The Delivery Man, this album is chockfull of good tunes with some killer grooves that can only blow up into something fantastic in live concert. Costello has never been one to simply reproduce his albums note for note in live performance, so this could be a fun potential tour to come. If you liked When I Was Cruel and All This Useless Beauty, you’ll probably dig this collection. This is not the first time Elvis has dabbled with hip hop, soul and R’nB textures (heck, he did a solo tour once years ago supported by a beat box)
“Tripwire” seems to sample a backing track (or a new demo-like recreation) from Elvis’ own song “Satellite” from 1989’s Spike, into a modern day doo-wop like song. Likewise, “Stick Out Your Tongue” repurposes some lyrics and melody from his own anti-war anthem “Pills & Soap” over a fresh beat with noodle-y keyboard samples and falsetto background vocals this side of Prince; its pretty cool what he does with it and certainly a strong theme/melody worth revisiting.
At first I wasn’t so keen on the sound of this album, as its a bit on the boxy side. Reports indicate that basic tracks for Wise Up Ghost were indeed birthed in the rehearsal space / dressing room where the Roots practice for Jimmy Fallon’s show so that could very well explain the underlying sound of the album. It has a kind of claustrophobic feel to it that is both immediate and challenging. However, as I’ve listened to it, that tight condensed feel fits the music well and it has grown on me much in the way that the sound of Elvis’ raw 1986 masterstroke Blood and Chocolate grew to become one of my favorites. Fear not: its not all just digital mush and there are overdubs and properly mixed production touches that sparkle, including orchestral arrangements done in Hollywood. Album closer “If I Could Believe” is exquisite.
So, should you buy the long playing vinyl of Wise Up Ghost? That really depends on how you like to listen to your music. Since this is very much a studio creation which employs more of a hip hop flavored production, that may or may not be your cuppa tea if you are an audiophile purist. I mean, I saw an interview on YouTube where Elvis (at the Apple press conference) said he recorded a vocal on his iPad in his kitchen. So this album is very much a lo-fi meets hi-fi affair, for sure. That said, if you are an Elvis fan and want to hear the album as Elvis probably would like you to hear it, then I would get the LP. The disc comes on thick, well centered and generally quiet, well pressed 180-gram black vinyl.
Personally I like the LP which has a noticeably broader mid range and bass sensibility than the MP3s and much less of the digital grittiness dancing around the permitters of Elvis’ vocals and the instruments.
Of course, there is a catch (you didn’t think it’d be THAT easy now did you really?)
On vinyl, Wise Up Ghost comes with “only” 12 tracks spread across two album sides. However, on CD and download, there are two versions available including a “deluxe” edition with three bonus tracks. I was a bit bummed (but not entirely surprised) that that LP didn’t come with the bonus tracks. I subsequently purchased them on iTunes, but was again, a bit bummed to find those were only 256 kbps files. The actual album download you get with the LP is 320 kbps. The difference in the sound quality is noticeable.
Some might say I’m splitting hairs here but this is an audiophile publication so you readers in theory like knowing this sort of detail! That said, and all things considered, the download sounds pretty decent and will work fine in the car or on your morning train commute listening on headphones.
At the end of the day, Wise Up Ghost is one of those records you’re going to want for the music, regardless of how it was recorded. I mean, would you not listen to Born to Run or Sgt. Pepper or Paul’s Boutique just because they have a distinctive sonic blue print that isn’t quite up to so-called audiophile standards?
Of course not. Great music is great music.
Perhaps I will get lucky and find an inexpensive copy of the Deluxe Edition CD used somewhere down the line so I can have the bonus tracks in better fidelity. Of the three bonus tracks, the last one is my favorite of the entire new batch of songs,: “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings.”
What a haunting tune, with its simple circular piano motif that reminds me of no less than Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon, run through an early Elton John blender.
“The breath is slow and shallow too
The sky is bright Venetian blue
The cardboard sun is all ablaze
The air is painted Clifford Brown
The steady gaze of your glass eye
Head in a basket smiling still
Free of will, free of wisdom”
Wise Up Ghost is going to be getting many more plays for sure. Get it.
Mark Smotroff has been a serious Elvis Costello fan since first hearing This Year’s Model when it came out in early 1978. He is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who’s songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries (www.ingdom.com). Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.