Earth Wind and Fire - The Essential Earth Wind & Fire (2014)

Earth Wind and Fire
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As a certified Earth, Wind & Fire fanatic, my definition of essential is broader than someone who simply likes all of the hits. I bought Heritage and Millennium back in the days when fan loyalty meant putting some financial skin in the game – often only on the basis of the couple of songs that earned radio play. With the Mighty Elements, that gamble paid off more often than not. However, the aforementioned projects from the early 1990s qualify as nots under even the most generous definitions.

As a certified Earth, Wind & Fire fanatic, my definition of essential is broader than someone who simply likes all of the hits. I bought Heritage and Millennium back in the days when fan loyalty meant putting some financial skin in the game – often only on the basis of the couple of songs that earned radio play. With the Mighty Elements, that gamble paid off more often than not. However, the aforementioned projects from the early 1990s qualify as nots under even the most generous definitions.

So, what does a hard care EW&F fan make of a compilation with the lofty title of The Essential Earth, Wind & Fire? Well, the first thing that fan might notice is that the cover of The Essential Earth, Wind & Fire looks exactly like their copy of a compilation released by Columbia/Legacy in 2002. Listeners will find considerable overlap between the two albums, with 27 of the 35 tracks appearing on the 2002 version and the 2014 update. So, I guess the latest compilation can be called The Essential Earth, Wind & Fire 2.0.

This record reflects the virtues and vices of compilations of this sort. Defining “essential” as hits means the album will pass the truth in advertising test because included songs such as “Shining Star,” “Reasons,” “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” are among the many songs that define EW&F and the EW&F “sound.” So the reboot can excise “Evil” for “ Magnetic” and sub “System of Survival” for “Yearnin’ Learnin’” and that won’t change the arc of the story for most fans.

 A prime virtue of the 2002 compilation and the update is that both confirm the truism that although there is an EW&F sound in the macro sense, the band developed multiple “sounds” during their four plus decades of making great music. The macro or Meta sound includes those elements that remained constant throughout the years and allow fans to know they are listening to EW&F from the first note. Those things include the tight horn section that featured the lovely and creative soprano sax work of the late Don Myric, tight vocal harmonies, Maurice White’s muscular baritone, Phillip Bailey’s soaring falsetto and Verdine White’s smooth bass work.

The Essential EW&F also displays how the band’s sound evolved over the years. This compilation disc actually begins toward the end of the early EW&F as the band moved from a funk band with jazz fusion and world music influences that characterized early 1970s efforts such as “Last Days in Time” and “Open Our Eyes” to a band that combined funk with a smoother pop element.  That funk comes through on tracks such as “Kalimba Story” and the “Mighty Mighty.”

The 2002 compilation and the 2014 update spend a considerable amount of time on the material from the band’s most creatively and commercially successful period that began in 1975 with the album That’s the Way of the World and ended in 1982/83 with Powerlight. This is the era when Clive Davis’s vision of EW&F as a crossover band was fully realized. That vision came to pass because White’s band skillfully managed to incorporate a smoother pop sound that was more than balanced by a strong funk element that also maintained the jazz, blues and gospel element that White brought from Memphis to Chicago and refined as a songwriter and session musician at Chess Records, as well as a drummer for Ramsey Lewis.

EW&F simply had all of the elements to become a great crossover band because the group could play anything, as evidenced by their funky rendition of The Beatles classic “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and the production of “Boogie Wonderland,” a song that must be included in any retrospective of the best songs of the disco era.

EW&F music ages well, and that can be seen in songs that did not become major hits or are not as memorable such as “And Love Goes On” from Faces, “Fall in Love With Me” from Powerlight and “System of Survival” from Touch the World.

In fact, the most interesting insert from the 2014 reboot might be “Magnetic” from Electric Universe, an underrated song that provides insights into the struggles that R&B artists face and continue to face in their efforts to gain true crossover appeal. I view “Magnetic” as one of the band’s most daring efforts. The tune sounded nothing like the brand of post P-Funk synthesized pop that dominated the R&B radio in 1983 – think “Just Be Good To Me” by the SOS band and “Freak-A-Zoid” by Midnight Star. However, “Magnetic” sounded a lot like the synth-pop that was all over the pop airwaves in the early 1980s. I think White saw “Magnetic” as his play for the pop market because Electric Universe had other tracks such as “Touch” and the lovely ballad “Living in Our Own Time” for the band’s R&B fans. However, pop and Top 40 radio ignored “Magnetic” as did the band’s nemesis MTV – both entities likely viewed EW&F solely as an R&B band in spite of all the group’s pop hits.

The Essential EW&F gives short shrift of the group’s post output after Faces. The album includes “Let’s Groove,” but nothing else from Raise. “Side by Side” from Powerlight appears on the 2002 compilation but not on the second edition. Heritage gets written out of history entirely while “Sunday Morning” – the only song from Millennium to make the cut - shows that the Mighty Elements never forgot how to make a mid-tempo ballad that’s full out funky. “Sunday Morning” is another gem that holds up pretty well more than 20 years later.

One criticism that can be made about The Essential EW&F is that the album will do nothing to dispel the erroneous notion that the Mighty Elements exist these days as a legacy band. The disc includes three songs made after 2000 – “Pure Gold” and the forgettable remake of Outkast’s “The Way You Move” from the Grammy nominated Illumination and “My Promise” from the excellent 2013 album Now, Then & Forever.

Listeners won’t find anything from two albums that represent some of EW&F’s best work - 1997’s In the Name of Love and the Grammy nominated 2003 album The Promise. That’s sad but unavoidable as both albums were released independently.

Those quibbles aside, The Essential Earth, Wind & Fire does a good job of summarizing into two discs one of the seminal bands of the past half century. And for longtime fans of EW&F, it is a collection that will definitely get the party started. Strongly Recommended

By Howard Dukes

 

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