A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.
The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.
Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.
“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.
Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.
Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.
“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.
(Above: Picture this on the 50-yard line: the Flaming Lips, “Race for the Prize.”)
By Joel Francis
The five years since Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime “wardrobe malfunction” two things are clear: Nipple shields have not become the must-have fashion accessory everyone predicted; and halftime shows have never been better.
It would be easy to get tired of all the blue-chip baby boomer performers if they didn’t put on such compelling shows. The Rolling Stones abysmal 2006 act aside, it doesn’t get much better than hearing “Drive My Car” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” at halftime. Yeah, they’ve been done to death, but they’re a lot better than whatever song Janet and Justin Timberlake were singing and Aerosmith’s pairing with Britney Spears. Does anyone remember those songs today?
Even fans tired of the oldies can’t argue with the energy that propelled Prince’s set in 2006 and Bruce Springsteen’s show last night into the top echelon of pop music performances.
Which is exactly why it’s time to change things up. The canary is choking; there’s not much more ore in the vein the NFL has mined these past five years. Let’s stop now, before Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles are serenading us with mid-game naps. It’s time to take the halftime show in a new direction. A direction hinted at in 2002 when U2 were brought in to play: dynamic bands that can connect with a huge audience, playing high-energy hits written within 20 years of their performance.
The Flaming Lips are the perfect band to open this new era. Imagine frontman Wayne Coyne rolling over the crowd in his giant hamster ball as “Race For the Prize” blasts through the stadium. Lasers penetrate the clouds of smoke as confetti, streamers and balloons rain on the crowd. Did we mention the Lips also come with their own space aliens and super heroes? Oh, and a flying saucer?
In their 25-year history, the Lips have twice rocked the massive crowds at Bonnarro and will have no problem connecting to the fans in the upper deck or on the couch. Their songs may not be as universally known as “American Girl,” but “She Don’t Use Jelly” was an MTV staple big enough to land the band on “Beverly Hills 90210.” And the “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” will have as many people signing along as the outro of “Hey Jude.” The biggest obstacle will be cleaning up all the joyous debris on the field (lay down a tarp) and getting everyone to settle down enough to concentrate on the resumed game.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Blues Brothers (minus John Belushi) and Miami Sound Machine were given center-stage at the world’s biggest intermission. But there is a midway point between dinosaur bands and Top 40 vapidity. Once the Flaming Lips remind the audience of this territory, bands like the Foo Fighters, Arcade Fire and Robert Randolph and the Family Band are perfect future candidates.
Inoffensive doesn’t have to be the antonym of adventure. The Flaming Lips are the embodiment of the party atmosphere the NFL wants the Super Bowl to inhabit. It’s time to let them take the stage. Book them for 2010.
Read The Daily Record’s coverage of the Flaming Lips at Wakarusa in 2006and 2008.
Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Back Radiohead – In Rainbows
Talib Kweli – Ear Drum PJ Harvey – White Chalk
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Bettye LaVette – The Scene of the Crime
Thurston Moore – The Trees Outside the Academy
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
Kanye West – Graduation
Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer