Earth Wind and Fire - Now, Then & Forever (2013)

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    No matter what gender, genre or generation one aligns themselves with, you would be hard-pressed to find a music lover who remains unmoved by Earth, Wind & Fire. For nearly half a century, this self-contained band has enthralled audiences around the world with sophisticated arrangements heavily steeped in jazz, funk, soul, gospel and even African influences that turned messages of love, unity, self-awareness and spirituality into timeless hits ("September," "After The Love Is Gone," "Devotion," "Shining Star," "Be Ever Wonderful," "Reasons," etc.).
    Today, as EW&F is one of popular music's longest-enduring acts, and countless awards, astronomical unit sales (90 million and counting) and measureless impact on other performers remain a testament to the band's vision and legacy.
    With its leader publicly retired (founder Maurice White still contributes behind the boards but left touring due to Parkinson's Disease) and the other original members Ralph Johnson, Verdine White and Philip Bailey well into middle age, no one would fault the trailblazers for exiting stage right altogether. Fortunately for their fanbase, though, to celebrate their 40th Anniversary - and four years after the Grammy-Award-nominated CD Illumination - the band wanted to return to their signature style with the release of their latest studio album, Now, Then & Forever. 
    In comparison to its predecessor, Now.... has less outside contributors lyrically, vocally and production-wise, a calculated move to showcase the main ingredients that put them on top to begin with. In fact, with the exception of two tracks, all songs were written or co-written by a group member and/or Philip D. Bailey (named after his famous falsetto-singing father), resulting in numbers that are entirely new but brimming with the lush sophistication and lofty themes that listeners have long associated with the band:"Sign On," the only duet, kicks off the set with a crisp smattering of horns, the re-emergence of Larry Dunn on keyboards and Mr. Bailey's elastic range trading verses with a competent Daniel McClain about the importance of action-fueled agreement in a crumbling world---"Everytime I seem to look around, I can see the people crying out/Cause the fear, hate and power/and that good ol' mighty dollar/Time to unite and make it right/Within us."
    Other magnanimous moments include a neo-soul-infusing jam, "Got To Be Love" and the upbeat and rollicking single "My Promise" (co-penned by Siedah Garrett) recalls the groove of "Getaway" and confesses a heady and eternal love. "Guiding Lights" features a fluid pace and is both soothing and spiritual, tenderly entreating a timid soul to face fears and heal from within. But the most infectious of them all is "Love Is Law," perfectly paced for the stepper set, sung angelically and deftly co-written by an increasingly-prolific Lee Hutson Jr: "Let love surround us, don't it feel so good/love the feeling, it's understood/keep believing and love endures." 
    What remains of Now...incorporates touches of come-hither, cool-out jazz ("The Rush"), a fluidly-resplendent instrumental with horn play by Terence Blanchard ("Splashes") and a pair of fast-paced cuts that take you back to the disco era whether you wanted to go back in time or not ("Dance Floor" and "Night Of My Life"). Unfortunately, the liveliness and pristine production values (chiefly assembled by Neal Pogue) aren't enough to stop comparisons to the earlier classics that obviously inspired them, "Let Your Feelings Show" and "I've Had Enough." 
    After accumulating 20-odd studio recordings and dozens of baby-making and booty-shaking grooves, Earth, Wind & Fire has already demonstrated their artistry and excellence. But what the icons still accomplish here, however, is an enthusiastic expansion of their time-tested blueprint over assorted new melodies and material, which will intrigue a newer audience, gratify their original one and remind everyone of why EW&F still reigns as one of the world's baddest-ever entertainment ensembles, Now and Forever. Highly Recommended. 
    By Melody Charles
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