New John Legend Album

AKIE BERMISS: Where do we begin?  The new John Legend record is called “Wake Up.”  The album is basically a collection of covers, all of them (save one original) from the 60s and 70s.  There are a lot of good things about this record.  The song selection, for starters, is positively excellent.  Each song is a classic tune — though many are songs today’s generation have probably never heard before.  The combination of the Roots and John Legend is a match I’ve long thought would be a good one.  Trouble is: the album just isn’t that good.

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not fond of John Legend.  I think he has way too much talent and skill to be putting out the music that he does.  The last couple of records have been really underwhelming.  He’s a very good natural singer.  His instrument is, actually, phenomenal.  But he often uses it so one-dimensionally that he comes off sounding like he has far less talent than he does.  On the songwriting end, every record usually has one or two (sometimes three!) gems on it.  But then the sheer mediocrity of the rest is enough to make you wish you hadn’t bought the record in the first place.

So I begrudgingly admit, John Legend doing soul covers had a nice ring to it.  Maybe, I thought, he’ll step out on this record and do something a little different.  And maybe it’ll be good.

Well, bringing the Roots into the studio was another great move.  The band, itself, sounds fantastic.  They connect with Legend as a singer and pianist and they transform the music as its happening.  I can say, without much doubt, that they are one of the best bands in the world right now.  But it was almost too much of a good thing.

When you take these classic songs (written, performed, and produced so well in their own time) and try to beef them up for today’s market, you’re walking a fine line.  I appreciate the organic quality of the record (after all, the are a band), and I can appreciate the way the music is arranged.  But I simply cannot get next to these new versions of the songs.  In nearly every case, the song is robbed of its most musical attributes in service to some beefed up 2010 version of them.  I’m not saying the 2010 sound is bad, but it jars with the material in a way that is unsettling.

Songs like Little Ghetto Boy, Compared To What, and Humanity suffer from a kind of update-effect where they go from being moving songs to be cute renditions of old songs.  Its kind of like when old black and white movies were colorized and they become somewhat garish new versions of the original.

On the other hand, Hard Times is a nice remake!  I applaud the way the song is shifted into high gear and mirrors the frenetic pace of today’s Hard Times.  Listen to that track and the original (by Curtis Mayfield) back-to-back and discover a nice shift from 1975 to now.  In the particular instance of Hard Times, the arrangement seems conscious of the original, conscious of how it might apply today, and not at all cutesy in how it is translated.

Then there are more complicated situations like on the Bill Withers tune I Can’t Write Left Handed.  Here is a magnificent song about the human-side of war.  Its probably one of the most beautiful and striking lyrics Withers ever wrote (and that’s saying something from the guy who wrote Grandma’s Hands and Ain’t No Sunshine) and the song itself is one of those songs that not too many people have heard — but that everyone should hear.  On Wake Up! its gets the big, glaring “remake” treatment.  Legend sort of mimics the classic spoken intro that Withers did at his Carnegie Hall concert, they basically mimic the original groove for the first verse (though not quite with the same indescribable funkiness of that 70s Withers band) and then things get a little more intense.  There are TWO guitar solos, there is a march-time trope on the refrains (until after the first solo, when it becomes all out rock), and Legend takes the laid-back Withers vocals and gets his church-style shout on.  Its not bad, actually.  But it just doesn’t approach the stirring, epic quality of the original.  Still, there is something awesome about the track.  The guitar solos are pretty great.  I almost felt like they tried to add the energy of Jimi Hendrix’s war song, Shotgun, to the song.

I give them points for trying.

What it all boils down to is two essential failures in the execution of the project.  First of all, if you took the vocals off of most of these tracks and just listened to the band, you’d probably think this was a damned good record.  The Roots (with Legend on piano and James Poyser on keyboards and organ) sound divine.  One has to wonder what might’ve come of trying to make an original record with this band.  Indeed, one hopes they might keep this set-up and do just that.  The playing is first-rate.  The live show will probably be absolutely bananas.  Its not the quality of the singing that brings the tracks down, but that they are all covers really diminishes the experience of actually hearing the band.  Some of these grooves are enough removed from the original that they could actually be different songs — and I suspect that would have been a much cooler project.

And secondly, Legend’s vocals once again leave something to be desired.  I know the cat can sing — I can’t argue that.  But just what the hell is he singing?!  When I make fun of John Legend, I immediately go to his over-gravelly tone and his over-used pentatonic melisma.  Its meant to be a sort of absurd caricature of his singing style (it breaks the ice at parties).  But the very first track on the record starts with a good 40 seconds of minor trilling by the band over which John Legend does practically every one of his stock riffs.  Its absolutely ridiculous!  I hard to listen to it over again twice because I couldn’t believe it.  It was almost like the old broadway tradition of writing an overture in which all the melodic themes are quoted so as to give the listener a sense of what’s in store.  Are these the John Legend leitmotifs?  Sure enough, anywhere there is too much space on the record — we get one of these figures.  Sometimes strung together or  in retrograde.

Its a shame that he didn’t step out a bit more on the intro.  It was a moment where he could have set the stage for something new.  Instead, I knew right away: same old John Legend.

DAVE TOMAR: I have been absolutely addicted to Cee Lo’s new tune, “Fuck You.”   Cee Lo Green is an overweight eccentric, a man with a growing body of experience and a modern soul singer of the first order.  “Fuck You,” inhospitable though it may sound, is actually a perfect piece of pop-confection; a breakup song with Motown’s sense of drama and the immediate familiarity that made “Hey Ya!,” “Crazy” and “Paper Planes” instant classics.

It’s a strange way, perhaps, to start my review of a John Legend record by raving about Cee Lo.  It’s just that a real, true soul singer is so hard to come by these days.  John Legend is a case in point.  Wake Up! is a collaboration with Philly rock-soul combo The Roots.  Let’s get this out of the way first.  These guys are seasoned professionals.  They can make it gritty, as with the spot-on take of Baby Huey’s “Hard Times.”  They can make it sweet like on Harold Melvin’s “Wake Up Everybody.”   They even manage to keep a straight face on “Shine,” the piece of utter crap that represents Legend’s only original composition on this record.

Hell, it’s no surprise The Roots sound good here.  They’re so good, people actually watch the Jimmy Fallon Show.  Similarly, they are good enough to make this collection of soul classics fairly listenable.  Unfortunately, Legend and company are shooting for something far greater than listenable.  Truly, this is an ambitious project, and the participants can be commended for taking it on.  The collection of artists covered is essentially the bible of soul, including Marvin Gaye (“Wholly Holy”), Donny Hathaway (“Little Ghetto Boy”) and Bill Withers (“I Can’t Write Left Handed.”)

Moreover, the selection of songs is a thematic reconstruction of an era in which soul music was inherently vigilant, political and profound.  The tunes are devised to reflect the parallels between the Vietnam War and the War on Terror; between the Civil Rights movement and the Obama Era; between two distinct generations enduring largely universal suffering.  The album is conceived as a call to consciousness, like Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.  In the end though, Legend’s performance is just so . . . slight.  These are weighty matters he chooses to tackle, and all the respect in the world to him for paying tribute to the very best who came before him.

But he’s in way over his head with these tunes.  It’s not even that his performances are bad.  If this was karaoke, he’d be excellent.  I’d buy him a glass of sake.  But jeez, have you heard the original recordings that he’s up against?  Baby Huey’s 1971 “Hard Times,” produced by Curtis Mayfield, is a nasty, driving funk tune about a guy suffering from deep depression, crushing poverty and a sense of social isolation.  And yes, just to review, Baby Huey died of a heart attack at age 26 because of the combination of a heroin addiction and the fact that he had ballooned to over 400 pounds.  With respect to Hard Times, he wasn’t fucking around.  John Legend possibly contemplated developing an eating disorder because of a bad grade he got once in prep school.  But listen to the lyrics and tell me you really believe John Legend ever ate a can of SPAM in his life.

And so is this the case for much of the record.  Legend suffers by comparison to Teddy Pendergrass, whose performance on Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes Philly-soul smash hit “Wake Up Everybody” is soaring and authoritative.  The bold and loose “Compared to What” by Les McCann makes Legend’s stuffier version basically pointless.  Even at its very best, the album is a faint comparison to the material that has inspired it.  The critical consensus appears to be that the height of the record is the 11 minute+ space-soul jam on Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed.”  Once again, the Roots do excel, with some genuinely searing guitar work making this a refreshing burst of nerviness.  Legend co-opts the Vietnam protest song for consideration of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And he sings his hardest here.  But he still falls just shy of Lenny Kravitz on the soul-meter.

That’s really the biggest problem here.  Cee Lo’s new stuff, as a basis for comparison, sounds effortlessly soulful.  Legend is trying his hardest but. . . . well maybe he needs to gain 200 pounds.  His voice is a wisp when you want a wail.  These songs are above him.  With the right singer, this could have been an awesome project.

The best thing that I can say about the record is that it aspires to bring these songs to the attention of a new generation of listeners.  And should the record be successful, I think this will be a great accomplishment.  But I can’t see any reason why I’d want to hear John Legend sing something that I could hear Marvin Gaye or Bill Withers sing.

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