Soul music lovers have been inundated over the past few years with "covers" albums, with both classic and modern soul artists remaking - with varying quality -- some of the biggest R&B hits of the 60s and 70s. Despite the wide range of artists who've created these albums, the discs have largely focused on a limited cross-section of music of that era, with an overemphasis on the pop/soul hits of Motown and Philadelphia. Surprisingly, the material of perhaps the most influential R&B group of the 70s, Earth, Wind & Fire, has been largely overlooked on these albums. The omission may have been because the compositions of Smokey Robinson and Gamble & Huff are much more traditional in their structure and easier to cover in various fashions. But perhaps it is because Earth, Wind & Fire's material, while undoubtedly strong, was as memorable for the impeccable performances of the group as for the songs themselves. So an artist has a much easier time distinguishing a version of "How Sweet It Is" from the original than he or she would have covering, say, "That's the Way of the World," the sound of which is inextricably tied to the aura that EW&F created around it.
Fortunately, Concord Records has boldly decided to relaunch the Stax label with Interpretations, a loving celebration of the work of Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire, and has brought together an amazing collection of modern R&B talent to pay tribute. The album faces the daunting task of trying to honor EW&F without facing obvious comparisons to the near-perfect original recordings, and it generally succeeds. There isn't a single approach that defines the most enjoyable songs on the album - e.g., whether the artist completely reinterprets the song or stays close to the form of the original -- but the results tend to, for the most part, rise or fall on the artist's vocal performance. So the hip-hop, Gospel-tinged modernization of "September" by Kirk Franklin works wonderfully, but so does the more reverential readings of "Be Ever Wonderful" by Angie Stone and "After the Love Is Gone" by Mint Condition. Even more enjoyable are the jazzier take on "Devotion" by Ledisi and Musiq Soulchild's passionate reading of "Reasons," each creating a cover that successfully pays tribute to the original but remains memorable in its own right.
It's inevitable but almost unfair to line up the songs on Interpretations with the EW&F original versions. The fact is, the new covers don't dilute or "replace" the seminal versions of thirty years ago, but generally accomplish their purpose: to showcase some very talented modern artists paying tribute to a band that deserves accolades for its rule-breaking, genre-defining work that still reverberates today.
By Chris Rizik