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Pop reviews — week of Sept. 22

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Wise Up Ghost

Elvis Costello and the Roots

Enough with Velvet Elvis. This year’s model of Elvis Costello features a collaboration with the Roots that inspires his angriest singing and best album in many years.

Wise Up Ghost covers topical turf as Costello rails about the tense and troubled times. The title cut calls for a revolution, Come the MEANTIMES offers dark ruminations on faith and the flag, and TRIPWIRE considers the combustible combination of fear, hatred and armies.

Costello also lets loose on love gone wrong, as he has done on many of his best songs. “She’s pulling out the pin … that lets her hair fall down,” he sings on (She Might Be a) GRENADE.

Writing with Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and producer Steven Mandel, Costello dials back his melodic ambitions, and for a change he sings songs that don’t exceed his range. Built more on riffs than hooks, the music has the verve of new wave, the directness of punk and the groove of 1970s R&B, with Questlove’s snare and Costello samples among the hip-hop flavorings.

The hybrid gets good mileage, and Costello’s venomous vocals energize much of the set. But on the closing piano ballad, If I Could BELIEVE, he oversings and reverts to his worst role — EC, square.

— Steven Wine

Associated Press

Never Go Back

Lee Child

The quest begins with a phone call, and when Jack Reacher arrives in Washington to meet the woman behind the intriguing voice from 61 Hours, he discovers Maj. Susan Turner has been imprisoned. Welcome to the relentless world of Reacher and his impressive tendency to be in the wrong place at the right time in Lee Child’s Never Go Back.

Child has created an iconic character that other thriller writers try to emulate but don’t come close. He takes material that in the hands of other authors would be stale and makes it seem fresh and original. This time, he takes a spin on his formula by waving a carrot in front of Reacher’s face: a chance to settle down.

When Reacher asks about Turner, he finds himself accused of an assault from 16 years ago and slammed with news that he has a daughter from a relationship around the same time. Reacher has no memory of the woman who supposedly gave birth to his child, but he does know the man he’s accused of assaulting. He knows he’s being set up, but has no idea why. When Reacher demands to see Turner in prison, he’s told that she won’t see him.

Reacher has walked into a major conspiracy and the powerful people behind it will not tolerate his meddling. How can he defeat an unseen enemy who anticipates his every move? For Reacher, the answer is to go into survival mode.

The novel is so tight and compelling that the abrupt and somewhat disappointing ending will jar readers. The payoff is great, but the aftermath would have been perfect if not for the apparent appearance of a reset button. Even so, Never Go Back is one of Child’s best novels.

— Jeff Ayers

Associated Press

Amazing Grace

George Jones

The first release of George Jones music following his death in April features the legendary singer on a collection of traditional hymns.

Largely recorded in 2002, Amazing Grace finds Jones in full voice and backed by the subtle orchestrations of producer Billy Sherrill, who recorded many of Jones’ hits in the 1970s and ’80s.

Across 12 recordings, Jones performs classics such as Peace in the Valley, The Old Rugged Cross and the title song with solemn reverence, using subtle shifts in volume and phrasing to draw deep emotions from these often-performed standards. Each song features moments that prove why Jones was an unparalleled vocalist.

Sherrill also shows why he was such a great studio match for Jones. Whether it’s the quiet piano-and-bass opening of In the Garden, or how the harmony voices and steel guitar play off Jones in Just a Closer Walk With Thee, Sherrill’s arrangements add depth to the singer’s distinctive interpretations.

Many of these tracks were available for a limited time as The Gospel Collection, which went out of print in 2006. An unreleased track comes from 1994, with Jones warming up for a recording session by singing Great Judgment Warning with producer Brian Ahern on acoustic guitar and Marty Stuart on mandolin, with guest vocalists Jessi Colter, Waylon Jennings, Ricky Skaggs, Connie Smith and Travis Tritt. It’s a stunning closer to a remarkable collection.

— Michael McCall

Associated Press


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