Note for Note

In part one, Popdose.com‘s Jeff Giles and I explored the meatiest part of Earth, Wind & Fire’s catalog: their list of 1970s classics. The hits slowed down in the ’80s, although at least for the first few years, the albums continued at a relatively feverish pace. Finally, in 1984, the band decided to take a break. Philip Bailey was first on the solo scene, scoring a minor hit with his first album, Continuation and the single “I Know.” The following year, he broke through in a major way with the smash album Chinese Wall. The album (and it’s best known single, “Easy Lover,”) featured involvement from Phil Collins, who was right on the edge of going nuclear with his No Jacket Required LP. Maurice didn’t fare as well with his one and only solo album (released late in 1985) although he scored minor hits with “I Need You” and a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”

Earth, Wind & Fire reformed in 1987, and have more or less been together ever since. Although Bailey has continued to release solo albums in the pop and gospel realms, he is the band’s most visible member. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, Maurice White retired from live performance in the ’90s and ceased being featured on the band’s albums in the early part of this century. Bailey & Verdine lead a revamped EW&F lineup these days, and they remain a top concert draw.

EWF

The trimmed-down version of Earth, Wind & Fire, circa the earlier part of the 21st century.

Here’s a look at the albums from the second phase of their career:

Faces (1980)

FacesFaces busts out of the gate with a whopper of an opening track: “Let Me Talk,” which boogies all over your ass with skittering synths, funky horns, and some of the most joyfully intricate harmonies of the band’s middle period. For four minutes and change, you almost believe the album’s going to justify its ridiculous 15-track length. Although it never quite returns to those heights, Faces is a pretty solid three-star affair, which is pretty impressive considering the period and the glut of material the band stuffed onto the album — not to mention the crowded writing credits for each of the tracks. Still, it’s hard not to wish they’d taken a “less is more” approach. That said, if you’ve got an hour to spend with discofied beats and glorious falsetto vocals, you could do a lot worse than this. Other standouts include the strutting “Pride” and soaring “Song in My Heart,” while “You Went Away” adds punchy flourishes of horns and harmony vocals to the Philip Bailey formula. –JG

Raise! (1981)

RaiseFaces was an unexpected disappointment in the sales department, and Raise! (released a year and change later) found EW&F hedging their bets a little bit. As a result, it’s…almost completely devoid of urgency, oomph, legitimate funk. There’s nothing unique or groundbreaking about most of the songs here, even if “Let’s Groove” (which was a massive hit) somewhat falsely indicated that there might be some life left in the group. “The Changing Times” (whose title served as an omen if there ever was one) is a decent song, but it’s an additional guitar solo away from being a Ray Parker Jr. track (and a slight tempo shift away from being an early-period Cameo track). In truth, EW&F had begun to change with the times, but they didn’t change enough to actually keep UP with the times. Interestingly, the album’s best cut (besides the singles “Let’s Groove” and “Wanna Be With You”) was “I’ve Had Enough,” which was co-written by Brenda Russell (of “Piano in the Dark” fame) and Greg Phillinganes, who at the time was most closely associated with the Jacksons, one of the groups that had risen to threaten and perhaps supplant Earth, Wind & Fire’s status as the #1 R&B group in the land. –MJ

Powerlight (1983)

As far as last gasps go, Powerlight isn’t bad. Earth, Wind & Fire continued to make excellent singles, and the album’s two best known songs (the upbeat “Fall in Love with Me” and the midtempo, Emotions-assisted “Side By Side”) are worthy additions to the band’s catalog. I guess I see much of EW&F’s post-I Am output in much the same way I see Prince’s catalog post-Emancipation. Some good stuff, but equal amounts forgettable stuff and absolutely nothing that blows you away the way their/his earlier stuff did. At this point, they were followers, not leaders, and while this album is a notch or so better than Raise!, much of it still sounds like the type of funk you’d hear in a dentist’s office. –MJ

Electric Universe (1983)

Powerlight performed respectably, breaking the pop Top 20 and spinning off a few middling hits, but Maurice White saw the writing on the wall: Synths and drum machines were the cool sounds, and real bands with a lot of members were starting to sound old. In an effort to add a contemporary spin to the EWF sound, he enlisted an army of keyboard players and programmers (including David Foster and Martin Page) and brought in outside material for the group’s thirteenth studio set, Electric Universe. It was an effort doomed to failure for a few reasons — first, Powerlight was only nine months old when Universe came out, and even taking into account the accelerated release schedules of the ’70s and early ’80s, that’s an awfully quick turnaround. Second — and more importantly — in straining to sound current, Earth, Wind & Fire sound kind of desperate here. Cuts like “Magnetic” are frankly fairly weak, and the better cuts (like the ballad “Could It Be Right”) are just echoes of previous hits. The band was spinning its wheels here, and due for a break. –JG

Touch the World (1987)

Touch The WorldThere was a four-year gap between Electric Universe and Touch the World — a change-filled period for the music industry. Maurice White and Philip Bailey had obtained a modicum of success as solo artists, but neither was as strong on their own as EW&F were together, so Touch the World was born.

Honestly, I’m not even sure whether to call this an Earth, Wind & Fire album, since the only band members who actually appear on the record are White and Bailey. A series of session musicians ranging from the mysterious “Skylark” (who I originally thought was just White in disguise but apparently is not only a real guy, but a current member of the Doobie Brothers) to Robbie Nevil, Glen Ballard, and members of Toto fill in the band, and the music sounds like an appropriately vague version of what EW&F should sound like. There are way, way, WAY too many synthesizers on the album. Synth bass, synth horns…I mean, it’s not an embarrassing album by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly disappointing…especially after the four year layoff.

“System of Survival” was potent anti-Reagan synth-funk (and continued the streak of having an absolutely bonkers opening track on every EW&F album), but “Evil Roy” and “Money Tight” also try to offer pointed political commentary and fall short of the mark. “You & I” is a pretty slow jam, and the well-meaning but dead boring title track goes full-on gospel. While moderately successful commercially, and not awful by any stretch of the imagination, Touch The World was official notice that Earth, Wind & Fire were done as musical trendsetters.- MJ

Heritage (1990)

Seventeen songs and almost an hour long, Heritage is a forceful collision of the awful and the unnecessary, an album so afraid of betraying the band’s roots that it can no more hint at them (as with the 35-second opening track, “Interlude: Soweto”) before rushing to wipe its ass on them with one melody-deficient, synth-saddled track after another (like “Takin’ Chances,” otherwise known as “Bits of This and That Mashed Together for No Good Reason”). It’s a garish, machine-driven mess. It’s also lousy with appearances from artists who don’t belong on an EWF record, and who were clearly invited for no reason other than to increase the band’s hipness quotient by association — such as (son of a bitch!) the rap cameo from The Boys on the title track, and two (son of a bitch!) guest raps from MC Hammer. The album does include one legitimately cool collaboration on “Good Time,” which unites the band with Sly Stone — but it came 15 years too late, and it’s still a clattering mound of electronic junk. –JG

Millennium (1993)

MillenniumBefore sitting down with Millennium for this guide, I hadn’t listened to it in 18 years — I remembered it as one outstanding single and heaping loads of jive-ass junk. After listening to it a few more times, I still think that’s true — mostly — but I’ve softened somewhat. More than anything, I have to say that the leadoff single, “Sunday Morning,” still sounds great; if anything they’ve recorded since reforming should have been a hit, it’s this marvelous track, which somehow finds a way to turn awful, dated production and typically hokey lyrics about love and being thankful into an irresistible R&B ode to joy. I heard it on the radio before Millennium came out, and was champing at the bit to hear the rest of the record — then bitterly disappointed when none of the rest of it managed to come anywhere near living up to it. It still doesn’t, but the bulk of the record is really just anonymous, B-/C+ level crap that’s typical of the era, rather than anything truly lame (except for the bits where Philip Bailey’s gargantuan, out-of-control falsetto is allowed to roam the countryside, destroying buildings and terrorizing villagers). It also loses points for including a track called “Chicago (Chi-Town) Blues” that sounds nothing like Chicago or the blues, but EW&F had recorded worse before, and they’d do it again. –JG

In the Name of Love (1997)

Millennium tanked so hard that by the time EWF got around to following it up with 1997’s In the Name of Love, they had to go to Japan, where the album first saw release as Avatar. It arrived on these shores with a different title (and track listing) courtesy of Pyramid, the Rhino subsidiary whose other artists included Robert Palmer, the Band, and the Doobie Brothers. In keeping with that retro spirit, Name boasts a surprisingly (ahem) earthy production aesthetic; although there’s still no shortage of digital noise, this also sounds like the work of a real band, with all the brass, live percussion, and tight vocals fans could hope for. The songs are also pretty solid, which is a bit of a surprise considering that a small army of co-writers pop up in the liner notes — and even though Bailey and the Whites were basically all that remained of the Earth, Wind & Fire longtime listeners remembered, this still leaned heavily on the band’s stock in trade. Sadly, by the late ’90s, radio wasn’t interested in EWF whether they sounded new, old, or in between, and In the Name of Love petered out at Number 50 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It’d be another six years before they’d resurface with more new music.–JG

The Promise (2003)

It seems faintly ridiculous that a group of Earth, Wind & Fire’s stature should end up self-releasing new music in the 21st century, but here we are. Apparently realizing that they could make just as much on their own as they could through a boutique imprint like Pyramid, EWF set up shop under its own label banner (Kalimba Records, natch) for 2003’s The Promise — a record as well-meaning, and ultimately uninspired, as its title. For the most part, the songs here are just okay (one semi-standout: “Suppose You Like Me,” which boasts songwriting credits from Questlove, James Poyser, Pino Palladino, and James Bailey), and they’re hampered by leaden production that relies too heavily on drum machines. If there’s a band that needs to never touch a rhythm program, it’s Earth, Wind & Fire; still, even lukewarm EWF is pretty good stuff, and although it can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the band’s best work, The Promise served as a defiant reminder that they remained creative, whether the marketplace cared or not. (For the record, it didn’t — the album peaked at Number 89.) –JG

Illumination (2005)

Ever since Santana’s “Supernatural” album became a blockbuster in 1999, the trend among veteran acts looking for a comeback was to pair them with contemporary artists. “Illumination,” EW&F’s 2005 effort, is nothing if not star-studded. Raphael Saadiq, Brian McKnight, OutKast’s Big Boi, Destiny’s Child’s Kelly Rowland, and will.i.am are just a few of the luminaries that appear. Thankfully, the guests don’t detract too much from the essential EW&&F-ness of the band’s music. Led by Maurice and Philip, there’s nothing groundbreaking on “Illumination,” but it’s a solid attempt to bring the elements into the modern age. The largely instrumental “Liberation” is a highlight, with an Afro-Latin flavor and a nod to the band’s more esoteric sound, while Saadiq’s “Show Me The Way” is fantastic modern R&B. Occasionally, “Illumination” sounds more like an Earth, Wind & Fire tribute record than anything else (“To You” is a shameless ripoff of “After The Love Is Gone”) but the band could do a lot worse than ripping themselves off, right?

Now, Then & Forever (2013)
Now ThenIt seemed as though the Elements were done making records. While the Gospel of EW&F was still being spread  on tour, I can’t imagine anyone thought there was anything left for them to give on wax. Last year’s Now, Then & Forever is an admirable and occasionally successful attempt to translate the spirit of classic Earth, Wind & Fire into the 21st century. Essentially a trio of Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson (with Larry Dunn helping out on a few tracks,) this album very consciously tries to sound like classic EW&F. Although they don’t totally pull it off, it’s hard to imagine any band making an album even this good forty-five years after their debut. You’ve also got to commend them for not calling in favors from a slew of guest artists (like they’d done before) and keeping this in house. The songwriting is pro forma for most of the album, but songs like “Love Is Law” have a sweet bounce that perfectly splits the difference between EW&F’s heyday and modern music. The horn charts are uniformly bright, the playing is enthusiastic in a very professional, studio-polished kinda way, and even though Philip Bailey may have lost a note or two from his range, that voice is still capable of hitting heights that mere mortals can only dare to reach.
Compilations:
Earth, Wind & Fire have been compiled to within an inch of their lives, starting with the very first greatest hits collection they released back in 1978 (which, for a while, was the only way you could get the immortal “September.”) Of the many, many EW&F comps flooding the market, the best might be Legacy’s sublime 2-disc The Essential Earth, Wind & Fire (almost every track is a winner) while the most exhaustive might The Eternal Dance, which contains a handful of late ’80s and early ’90s stuff (The Essential cuts off around 1983.) You can’t go wrong with either, although it must be said that even two discs of material struggles to contain all of EW&F’s best material.
Be Sociable, Share!