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Posts Tagged ‘Nina Simone’

 (Above: First Stephen Foster, then Ray Charles. Now John Legend and the Roots have “Hard Times.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

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.

Keep reading:

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

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(Above: Bettye LaVette owns The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. This performance helped inspire LaVette’s latest album, and is included as a bonus track.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

From Rod Stewart to Barry Manilow, albums based on the 1960s and ‘70s pop song book are a dime a dozen and usually worth even less. So while the concept behind Bettye LaVette’s latest album may not be novel, the delivery certainly is. LaVette has audaciously selected a baker’s dozen of the era’s biggest songs and steals every single performance.

Throughout “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” LaVette not only erases Paul McCartney and Elton John’s fingerprints from “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” respectively. She scrubs off four decades of radio saturation, turning in performances that arrive sounding completely fresh.

LaVette accomplishes this feat by ignoring the original melody and phrasing and focusing entirely on the lyrics. She crawls inside the words, mining new depth and emotion and lets that frame the arrangement. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” aches with loneliness. LaVette sneaks a reference to HIV/AIDS in “Salt of the Earth,” the Rolling Stones free-love era tribute to the working class. In “Don’t Let the Sun,” LaVette pleads with a desperation that feels like her life is hanging in the balance between light and dark. Robert Plant liked her treatment of “All Of My Love” so much he gave her the opening slot on his summer tour.

While every song fulfills the title by hailing from the United Kingdom, LaVette slyly hedges her bets with two numbers that are also associated with one of her primary influences, Nina Simone. LaVette mirrors Simone’s epic treatment and sparse arrangement of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Earlier, LaVette reminds listeners that while the Animals may have had the bigger hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” it was originally a Simone single. LaVette happily returns the gift.

Five years into her comeback, LaVette sings like something to prove. At 64 she is a contemporary of most of the performers she covers on “Interpretations.” But while most of them are content to coast by on these very songs, LaVette still sings with a hunger fueled by the decades she unjustly lost in obscurity. The force and authority in her voice make LaVette one of the most vital and compelling artists today.

Keep reading:

Review: Bettye LaVette and Buddy Guy at Roots n Blues BBQ Fest (2008)

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

Review – Booker T.

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