[Sneak Peek]: Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

tumblr_mo8cur8zrs1qb2mk2o1_500“Keep a red flag flying, keep a blue flag as well / And a white flag in case it all goes to hell.”

A friendship born on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where The Roots have served as Fallon’s house band since the show’s premiere in 2009, Elvis Costello and Questlove (The Roots’s drummer and co-frontman) are set to release their full-length collaborative LP, Wise Up Ghost, tomorrow. The odd-couple, much? Probably, but looking at their respective career trajectories, Elvis Costello and Questlove have a lot in common. Both have been slow-burners and neither have shied away from making unpredictable career moves or bothered making distinctions between what their music should or should not be about. Also, neither have qualms about letting their social opinions known on record: The Roots have recorded challenging albums commenting on social inequality and dissatisfaction in America on albums such as Things Fall Apart and Rising Down, while Costello’s protests range from the furious (‘Radio Radio’, ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’) to the beaten down (‘Shipbuilding’). It is fitting then, that some songs on Wise Up Ghost grew out of reworking some of Costello’s angriest songs (‘Stick Out Your Tongue’ came from ‘Pills and Soap’) and that ‘Walk Us Uptown’ should be an equal meeting of Costello’s  admonishments and Questlove’s musical sensibilities.

The album’s cover art being presented in the distinctive style of the old City Lights pocket poetry volumes is not fanciful, as ‘Walk Us Uptown’ very much has the feel of a modern beat poem. The traditional jazz accompaniment has moved on to encompass hip-hop and rock and roll and it feels like natural continuation of where Gil Scott-Heron left off with his final volume, I’m New Here. Jarring samples and punk staccato guitar punctuate the mix, while Questlove’s drumming is busy yet downplayed. Rather than a lively beat it is a monotonous shuffle, simmering with the same malice as the beat on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’. This sense of unease is heightened by the edgy piano chords which permeate the track and the sound of a distant train fading in and out. Meanwhile, the world view of ‘Walk Us Uptown’ remains as bleak and apocalyptic as anything Allen Ginsberg or Amiri Baraka saw, full of degradation and barely suppressed fury. Costello has been long recognised as a wordsmith and here he sounds like a man reading out newspaper headlines, an endless litany of frustration and bile which is broken only occasionally by the refrain “Will you walk us uptown?”, which sounds more like a demand than a question.

This is anti-easy-listening music. Disguised behind ‘Walk Us Uptown’s catchy and listenable veneer, lies a challenging and troubling core, which Ben Greenman articulates when musing on Wise Up Ghost‘s title in his ambitious introduction to the album: “Often, [ghosts] are spirits left behind because they failed to demonstrate the appropriate acumen in life. Are we now, as a species, risking this kind of nightmare? Can we learn enough to prevent a purgatorial future?”. This is a tall order to fill, but, like the best of any art form, ‘Walk Us Uptown’ does not present answers. Rather it provokes questions in the consumer and, hopefully, we may derive some answers for ourselves.

Wise Up Ghost is available in record stores tomorrow through Blue Note Records.


[Cover Me]: Neil Young Special

Neil-Young_“Step aside, open wide / It’s the loner”

Well, this post was originally intended to just be a short piece on Neil Young’s announcement that his audiophile digital download service, Pono, will be launched next year. However, in writing it has grown into more of an investigative analysis than a news flash, so in order to give it its due I will work on it over the weekend and post it early next week. While writing the article I dug into some of Young’s back catalogue and it reminded me that one of my first posts was on a Neil Young cover. With that in mind, I thought a Cover Me special of Neil Young covers would help you all kill the time between now and Monday. Enjoy.

Charles Bradley – ‘Heart of Gold’
Probably the most well-known of Neil Young’s songs and his most covered. It is unfortunate then that the covers are often completely uninspiring, as is the case with a lot of acoustic songs which are covered ad infinitum. Not so on this superb version taken from Charles Bradley’s first LP, No Time For Dreaming. Shaken up with a soulful twist and delivered in Bradley’s barking vocals, ‘Heart of Gold’ is given a much needed injection of urgency. The blasts of brass and guitar stabs give the song a slightly menacing sound, while the backing vocals, which have echoes of The Miracles’s ‘Tracks Of My Tears’, smooth things out. Ultimately though, it is the poignancy with which Bradley delivers the line “And I’m gettin’ old” which really clinches it together. As a man who has struggled through life and who recorded this song and his first album in his sixties, Bradley knows exactly what the twenty-six year old Young was talking about.

Pixies – ‘Winterlong’
As an alternative pop band, Pixies must have learned a few lessons from Young on writing enduring songs and melodies while carving your own path. Maybe that is what inspired them to tackle this song for The Bridge, a benefit album for The Bridge School. ‘Winterlong’ itself is one of my favourite Neil Young songs and this version is largely faithful to the original, but slightly more up tempo and frayed around the edges. Black Francis and Kim Deal lovingly recreate the harmonies of the original as they swap vocals, while Joey Santiago’s nasally guitar on the track is a dead ringer for Young’s own guitar work.

Chromatics – ‘Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)’
The opening number from one of my favourite albums of last year. I like covers where the artist departs from the original in some way and make it their own, and Chromatics certainly fit the bill here. On this version of Young’s raw anthem of rock and roll fatality, Chromatics refine the song’s ragged impurities and transform it into a slow-burning and silken epic. From the recognisable opening riff delivered amongst lethargic strumming and syrupy synths you can tell that this is Neil Young, but not as you know it.

Pearl Jam – ‘Fuckin’ Up’
Released in 1990 as the Seattle music scene was just about to break into the mainstream, ‘Fuckin’ Up’ and the album Ragged Glory must have seemed appropriate and clearly drew genealogical lines between Neil Young and this new generation. While Young is popularly accredited as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, Pearl Jam definitely owe more to ‘Uncle Neil’ than most. Not only figuring as a dominant inspiration and antecedent for their music and career path, Young also invited Pearl Jam to be his backing band for a tour and ended up recording the riffy Mirrorball album with them. Taken from a 2006 gig at the Gorge Ampitheatre, George, WA, (the last in a series of shows at the venue captured on Live at the Gorge 05/06), this performance of ‘Fuckin’ Up’ not only exemplifies the spirit of the original, but also kicks several shades of daylight out of it. I don’t think I really need to say much more, the busted tambourine around Eddie Vedder’s neck at the four minute mark says it all.

[Artist Spotlight]: Charles Bradley

Charles Bradley“I thank you for helping me carry on … through the storm”

My last few posts have been quite singer-songwriter/folk oriented, so I thought I would take things up a notch with some new soul, and what better man to crank up the mood than the ‘Screaming Eagle of Soul’, Mr. Charles Bradley?

Along with Lee Fields and Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley forms part of a rearguard of soul music: artists much neglected for most of their career but who are finally getting the attention they deserve with their old-school R&B sound. Bradley’s career in particular is a real underdog story, chronicled in the recent documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America, which unfortunately has yet to see British release. Similar to the documentary Searching For Sugarman that centred on Sixto Rodriguez, with whom Bradley recorded a split 45 last year, Charles Bradley: Soul of America talks about a diamond which was not fully unearthed until way down the line. From leaving his Florida home at the age of 14 Bradley has struggled, living hand to mouth and often in harsh conditions. However, his undiminished ambition to make it as a singer, which persisted through years in mismatched appointments including an extended stint as a James Brown impersonator under the name Black Velvet, finally came to fruition when he teamed up with the Menahan Street Band and Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth to deliver his debut record at the age of 62. Indeed, the title of that album, No Time For Dreaming, could be the injunction Bradley aimed at himself for finally telling his story. If that’s the case then Victim of Love could certainly be Bradley’s response and gesture of gratitude to the overwhelmingly positive public and critical acclaim that No Time For Dreaming has received. 

‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ is a moody and funky track, which showcases Bradley’s hard-hitting delivery and his irrepressible wails. As Bradley struts his stuff, co-writer and guitarist Thomas Brenneck chucks out a percussive guitar rhythm and displays a screaming, fuzzed up solo towards the song’s close. Meanwhile, horn blares from Dave Guy and Leon Michels punctuate Bradley’s preaching vocals and Homer Steinweiss’s outstandingly funky drum part makes sure the song hits you square in the guts. It is one of the standout tracks from the album for me and I strongly recommend you to go out and buy it. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed and you will be supporting an artist whose time may have finally come.

Victim of Love is available now through Daptone Records.