Interpretations: Celebrating the Music of Earth, Wind & Fire
ribute albums are a unique beast. Just collecting a batch of covers and re-workings of a quality artist by no means guarantees you a good record; pairing great songs with great singers can give you magic, but it can also deliver the ultimate in boredom. A good tribute album requires a balance between reverence and adventurousness, or there’s the risk of (if the former) a safe-as-milk snoozefest, or (if the latter) a record that pisses all over the work of the artist being tributed in the first place. The two Nativity in Black tributes to Black Sabbath struck that balance nicely, offering up artists who were clearly influenced by and worshipful of Sabbath, yet weren’t afraid of offering up fresh takes on the source material.
So where does that leave the new tribute to one of the finest funk/pop bands black music (hell, any music) has ever seen? First things first: to be honest, the list of artists involved is fairly uninspiring; almost to a one, you’d expect each of them to show up here. Angie Stone? Musiq Soulchild? Bilal? All present and accounted for, along with the obvious likes of Mint Condition, Chaka Khan, and Meshell Ndegeocello. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Think about it: part of the reason it’s easy to expect these artists here is because you’d want them here.
This album, more than many (if not most) tribute records, also points out the crucial distinction between tasteful and dull. Mint Condition’s take on “After the Love Is Gone” is almost-but-not-quite rote, but MC’s good enough that they’re able to insert some of their own personality into their version—and lead singer Stokely really could make the phone book sound gorgeous. (The fact that they are, like EW+F, a self-contained band, also works in their favor, because you can hear them locking into the groove as one.) Chaka Khan’s “Shining Star” isn’t as successful, largely because she gets a bit too American Idol-funk-night screechy on it. Chaka’s got a phenomenal voice, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that if this was all you knew of her.
What really excels on Interpretations are those covers which expand EW+F’s vision. Kirk Franklin (pure talent, folks) takes the uplifting “September” to its natural conclusion, making it gospel. He starts the song by sampling the original’s opening, but plays with it (stopping it, adding an on-the-beat deadpan “whoa”). Franklin also reworks some of the song’s lyrics, and leads his chorus of heavenly voices through their usual, glorious paces. The Randy Watson Experience, a side project of Roots drummer ?uestlove, brings in fellow Soulquarian Bilal to provide vocals on an inspired, jazzy take on “Can’t Hide Love”; most of the song’s done straight, but after most of the verses and choruses have been run through, they take it to a new place: samba. It’s sexy and soulful, and works like peanut butter on bread. (And would someone please release another Bilal album? This man deserves—needs—to be huge.)
It’s the album’s final track that really takes it somewhere else. “Fantasy” gets completely stripped to the bone and rebuilt by Meshell Ndegeocello and her new band, A Different Girl (Every Night). At times a spacey meditation, at others a Hendrix-esque sitting-on-the-verge-of-freaking-out gut-punch (all of it dedicated to Ndegeocello’s “brothers and sisters in Iraq”), it doesn’t entirely succeed, but it’s fascinating listening to Ndegeocello and company push it real good.
Interpretations is one tribute record that’s better than it first appears; repeated, close listening proves rewarding, as many of the artists here really open up passages in EW+F’s music and lyrics in ways that may not be initially apparent (along with those already mentioned, Ledisi and Lalah Hathaway acquit themselves particularly well). This is largely a thoroughly 21st-century take on the legacy of Maurice White and company, and it succeeds in its diversity. The range of artists represented here (and it’s a bigger leap from Franklin to Ndegeocello than you may think) represent for the different strains and influences in Earth, Wind & Fire’s music, and legacy—and that’s all you can really ask of a fine tribute, which this definitely is.