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The Roots, Costello collaborate on gritty new album

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Special to the Tribune

Though “Wise Up Ghost” isn’t likely to be played on the Top 40 rotation, it’s one of the edgiest and potentially legendary pairings in a long time.

Elvis Costello and The Roots deliver a punch on their new collaborative album, “Wise Up Ghost,” released Tuesday. The album is the perfect balance of soul and punk, representing some of The Root’s and Costello’s best work in years.

Elvis Costello is an iconic rock ‘n roller known for blending effortlessly with the most unexpected people, collaborating with stars from Paul McCartney to Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. His ability to be a stylistic chameleon is highlighted in this project with hip-hop jazz group The Roots.

This unlikely mash-up marriage began backstage at “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” when Costello was a guest on The Roots’ home turf as the show’s house band. The Roots’ drummer, Questlove, suggested they record an EP together. The collaboration worked so well they decided to make a full album instead – and it’s a good thing they did.

Costello’s voice is biting and tangy as usual, but the backing by The Roots’ funky beats brings a twist to the English punk musician’s style. His lyrics are experimental and raw, blending with The Roots’ brassy trumpets and funky bass lines, giving the album a seedy, sexy, back-alley vibe.

Costello uses this opportunity to reinvent himself yet again, delving into a trouble-filled, wicked world of betrayal and angst. Unlike many of his fallen ’70s punk-rock colleagues, now sitting at home in corduroys and slippers, Costello has evolved with the times, allowing the music industry to take him where it will.

Album opener “Walk Us Uptown” is filled with a brassy, addicting chorus and Costello’s classic repetition, but when you dig down beneath the surface, you’ll find stinging lyrics like “While our tears run in torrents/ To suffer in silence or pay for some solace.”

Costello slows it down in “Tripwire,” sampling from his own 1989 hit “Satellite.” The recycling of his classic song is smooth and lulling, but much like “Walk Us Uptown,” the lyrics ferment and bubble underneath the sweet doo-wop sound.

In the culture shock song “Refuse To Be Saved,” Costello makes a reference to Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” slamming a generation that believes everything the TV feeds them. He lets The Roots take over the melodies and beats, sticking with poetic, spoken word verses.

Costello has been releasing music since the ’70s, but still has an appeal that isn’t limited to your cool uncle and hipster roommate. He’s off the radar for most mainstream fans, but when you venture away from the well-tread path of synthesizers and one-size-fits-all lyrics, you’ll find the underbelly of Costello and The Roots’ sexy vocal lines and bright jazz riffs.

Though The Roots and Costello form an odd couple, they mesh together beautifully, making “Wise Up Ghost” one of this year’s most affecting surprises.

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