Earth Wind and Fire - Holiday (2014)

Earth Wind and Fire
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In a way it’s hard to believe that Holiday is Earth, Wind & Fire’s first Christmas album in the four plus decades of existence. One reason for that disbelief is that spirituality and uplift have long been a part of EW&F’s music.

So as we approach Christmas 2014, the Mighty Elements make their entry into the crowded holiday season market with Holiday, a project that contains all of those trademark Earth, Wind & Fire flourishes such as Phillip Bailey’s soaring falsetto and assertive tenor and the band’s excellent horn work. And if there is any season where those trademark EW&F horns feel right at home, it is Christmas.  

In a way it’s hard to believe that Holiday is Earth, Wind & Fire’s first Christmas album in the four plus decades of existence. One reason for that disbelief is that spirituality and uplift have long been a part of EW&F’s music.

So as we approach Christmas 2014, the Mighty Elements make their entry into the crowded holiday season market with Holiday, a project that contains all of those trademark Earth, Wind & Fire flourishes such as Phillip Bailey’s soaring falsetto and assertive tenor and the band’s excellent horn work. And if there is any season where those trademark EW&F horns feel right at home, it is Christmas.  

The vocals, tight harmonies and instrumental arrangements that mark Holiday as an Earth, Wind & Fire album stand out on the project’s stronger tracks. However, Holiday includes a couple of tracks that will cause listeners to scratch their heads and evoke the cynicism that many music fans harbor toward these ubiquitous Christmas projects. Holiday includes two EW&F cuts – “Happy Seasons” and “December” -- that the band repurposed as Christmas songs. Both cuts are based on tunes that the band released during their peak of creative and commercial success in the 1970s. “Happy Seasons” is based on “Happy Feelings” an album cut on the band’s 1975 breakout album That’s The Way of the World, while the inspiration for “December” is obvious.

There is nothing wrong with repurposing or reimagining songs by giving lyrics to an instrumental or by replacing a known lyric – Jon Hendricks has been giving that treatment to jazz instrumentals for years. However, the writer needs to do more than simply replace a couple of words, which is what the group did on both “Happy Feelings” and “December.” It feels like the band mailed it in on those two tracks.

Fortunately, EW&F shows spunk and creativity when it comes to covering the standard holiday season repertoire. I will admit that I like some Christmas songs better than others, and “Little Drummer Boy” has never been one of my favorites. However, the version that EW&F cuts for Holiday is among the better versions. The track is one of the few in which the band eschews the brass - opting to use percussion instead - and that gives the track an Afro-Caribbean musical arrangement with South African inspired harmonies backing Bailey’s falsetto.

Throughout Holiday, the band manages to endow these oft-recorded Christmas standards with the distinctive EW&F sound. The soul blues arrangement that the band employs on “Away in the Manger” may remind some longtime fans of the tune “Be Ever Wonderful,” while “Away In the Manger” is propelled both by the percussive horn work and Verdine White’s silky smooth bass playing. “O Come All Ye Faithful” finds the band merging R&B with orchestral strings, the backing vocals of a choir and jazz piano improvisation at the end. The combination makes the track the best effort on the album and a strong candidate for airplay when radio starts adding Christmas music to their playlists, right after that last piece of candy gets handed out on Halloween.

There are still so many things about this band that continues to amaze, such as the strength and versatility of Bailey’s voice, as well as their ability to make frequently recorded numbers such as “Joy To The World” sound fresh and  joyful. EW&F leans on those virtues to overcome the occasional slip and create an album that puts the group’s patented take on some well-loved holiday classics. Selectively Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 

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