Apparently The Roots never sleep. Over the past two years they have taken on a weekly residency at the Highline Ballroom in New York City, become the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
, put out their own record and now teamed up with John Legend for the September released the album Wake Up!
, a batch of twelve politically charged covers of 1960's and 70's soul and funk music. Creating Wake Up!
was not a challenge for the lighthearted. Not just any group of artists could successfully pull off this task. Undertaking such a thing requires respect from the musical world. There is nothing worse than seeing a young band think they can do justice to a classic, only to have every music critic and fan chase them out of town, torch in hand (remember when The Used tried "Under Pressure?"). Luckily, John Legend and the Roots have the respect and the chops to make an attempt, so the music world will sit down and hear what they have to say. It's worth the attention, even if it doesn't reinvent the wheel (and it doesn't).
With similar tempos and recording techniques on almost every song, it always blends, and only occasionally beguiles. But there are obvious highlights. John Legend was meant to cover Les McCann and Eddie Harris' "Compared to What"; the chorus leans and swings perfectly while The Roots spoon-feed him the soulful funky backing track. And there are songs that beckon thought; Bill Withers' Vietnam protest song "I Can't Write Left Handed" flows peacefully until you realize how applicable the lyrics still are in today's war torn times, and then it becomes sympathetic and relevant.
It's not always obvious The Roots are behind the instruments. Instead of their normal routine of recording complex, orchestrated beats, with every nuance overly thought out, the group (whether at their own doing or Legend's) take the cautious route and puts out some conservative arrangements for the covers. Still, the final product is interesting, even if it's somewhat standard fare. Though it's a bummer to see the most respected band in hip-hop reduced to session musicians, I have respect for a group that knows when to stand out and when to have restraint, especially in the company of another tremendous talent.
Thus the focus is Legend, maybe intentionally. Legend's voice is as on point as it has ever been. The album not so surprisingly reveals that this was the kind of music that he was raised on — and it's what he knows how to do best.
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John Legend on Myspace