Sunday, 13 January 2019

Earth Wind & Fire

Hard-working brassy soul grinders who eventually made it big....

Earth, Wind & Fire (1971)

This was Earth, Wind & Fire's debut album and it was released six long years before they really struck it big, chart-wise. The sound is far more of a down 'n' dirty funk one as opposed to the poppy soul grooves of 1977. Some of the typical vocal harmonies are there, though, and you can detect signs of what the group would progress to. It is a remarkably short album, only twenty-seven minutes. The old "side two" contains only three short tracks - amazing what artists could get away with in 1971. That is not to say that is not a good album, though, because it has many good points.
Help Somebody is an upbeat piece of brass-driven funky soul with some Latin jazz-influenced passages. Moment Of Truth is even more of a funk number, with some deep, resonant bass lines and blaxploitation-style drum rhythm. The ubiquitous brass dominates throughout too. Love Is Life is a sumptuous, slow burning soul ballad, with a tasty organ backing and seductive brass. A nice track. Fan The Fire has an intoxicating, brooding bass and electric guitar intro before it bursts into a funky, brassy groover. The funky guitar line is infectious. It has some Marvin Gaye-Temptations-Undisputed Truth-style socially aware lyrics. C'mon Children breaks out into life immediately with another deliciously funky rhythm. It is a shame that material like this is never included on any "best of" Earth, Wind & Fire compilations because it really is vibrant and impressive. Unfortunately, this early part of their career has been forgotten about, as if they didn't exist until 1975. Once more, on this track, the bass line is just superb

This World Today has some of the more recognisable EWF vocal harmonies that we would get used to by the end of the decade. Bad Tune begins with a thunderclap and then some West African marimba sounds before progressing into another funky number, but this time with the West African vibe continuing throughout in a Fela Kuti-influenced workout. Apart from a few isolated vocals, it is an instrumental. Overall, it is well worth giving this enjoyable album twenty-seven minutes of your time. It is quite a little undiscovered gem.

The Need Of Love (1971)

This was EW&F's second album, and is certainly an innovative, experimental one, particularly in the jazzy, almost hippy stylings of the nine-minute opener. There is sweet soul and funk on the album as well, although there are only five tracks. It didn't really take off for the band with this, to be honest, which was a shame, for it is a pretty credible album, especially for 1971.

Energy takes a while to get going, beginning with some free jazz saxophone and then into its hippy-spacey spoken introductory part which is somewhat cringeworthy, but when the jazzy rhythms and soul-funk vocals kick in it is pretty impressive. The track swings from part to part and is very ground-breaking, almost serving as a precursor for some of the "blaxploitation" funk from the mid-late seventies. There is an excellent bit of drum, bass, guitar and horns interplay after about five minutes. Beauty is beautifully bassy and laid-back, with some quality vocals. I Can Feel It In My Bones has the sound that would come to typify much of EW&F's early output - punchy, grinding, brass-driven and funky. 

I Think About Lovin' You features female vocalist Sherry Scott on a polished, sweet soul number, which is again nice and bassy, with some fetching trombone in the middle. It is very much an early seventies soul vocal, one that seems so representative of its era. Everything Is Everything is a wonderful piece of muscular funk to end on. It is a cover of a Donny Hathaway track. The album is too short, to be honest, but it certainly an interesting listen as one tracks the development of what would eventually become a huge band. This was some six or seven years earlier than their glory days, however.

Last Days And Time (1972)
This was Earth, Wind & Fire's third album and the were beginning to find their feet now as a horn-driven funky soul outfit. The extended, psychedelic experimentation of their second album had given way to a more concise punchier sound. However, unfortunately, they still hadn't found the knack of writing hit singles, something that was still several years away. The sound on this album is ok, but just a little bit muffled and unclear in places. Not off-puttingly so, however.
Time Is On Your Side is a lively slice of brassy funk to open with before we get the first of the three frankly pointless Interludes that permeate the album. No matter, the next one up, They Don't See is a tuneful laid-back soulful ballad with a bit of contemporary social awareness in its lyrics. A cover of Bread's easy-listening hit Make It With You is pleasant enough, but doesn't quite make it, so to speak. Taken in isolation, it's ok, but if you know the original, it just seems a bit messy and unnecessarily jazzy.

Power is a classic eight minutes of guitar, bass, keyboard and drum funk that eschews the usual brass accompaniment for once to deliver some down 'n' dirty urban-style funk in the "Blaxploitation" soundtrack style so popular at the time. Remember The Children continues the funk with some more Marvin Gaye-style "message" in the lyrics. Where Have All The Flowers Gone is a cover of a Pete Seeger folk song and continues the socially-conscious theme. It is sung beautifully, Philip Bailey using his falsetto voice to great effect. The backing is very What's Going OnI'd Rather Have You is a lovely slice of sweet soul underpinned by some infectious bass. Mom is suitably sentimental, but musically it is very appealing. This is a reasonable enough album, but there are much better soul-funk ones from the same period - Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Undisputed Truth, The Staple Singers, The Temptations, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and The Isley Brothers, to name just a few.

Head To The Sky (1973)

It was odd to think that Earth, Wind & Fire released a whole raft of relatively unsuccessful, average-ish albums before they hit the right note and became world-famous. This was their fourth album of brassy soul-funk. There are signs, though, of their trademark sound lurking beneath the surface.
Evil is a Latin-influenced groove with a bit of Santana influence to it and a pretty captivating beat. That rhythmic irresistibility that would serve them so well in the future is clear on this one. Keep Your Head To The Sky is a lush slice of sweet soul, with Philip Bailey's falsetto to the fore. Build Your Nest is a short-ish and muscular little funk number. The World's A Masquerade is pleasant enough, but actually doesn't particularly get anywhere. Clover is a laid-back, flute-driven soul number such as sometimes appears on "Blaxploitation" compilations as one of the more soulful, less funky numbers. Some seriously killer guitar comes in to it near the end. Zanzibar begins with some bizarre noises that will get you wondering who or what is in the room with you before it proceeds on its thirteen minute jazzy, improvisational way.

Certainly there are some good moments on this album, but there are not really enough of them to make it an album that particularly sticks in one's consciousness or urges repeated re-visits. It is pretty short and struggles to find its own real identity. A couple more tracks would not have gone amiss. Having said that, the first three tracks are pretty good and listening to them once more finds me getting into them a lot more, so there you go.

Open Our Eyes (1974)

This was the album that finally stared to break it big for Earth, Wind & Fire. Vocalist Jessica Cleaves had left and they now had an all-male line-up, not that it particularly affected the sound. They just seemed to ease from being a cult band to a far more popular one. The album seems just slightly more focused in its mix of funky soul with slight jazz influences. The sound quality is improving as well, just slightly, not that it was bad, but it seems a bit warmer and bassier on this one.
Mighty Mighty is a Parliament-Funkadelic-style punchy funker. Devotion is a melodic, laid-back soul ballad, with some lovely harmonious vocals. Fair But So Uncool is an excellent funky groover. It is full of intoxicating rhythm too. 

Feelin' Blue is also overflowing with samba-influenced rhythm and some funky, jazzy keyboard riffing in the middle. You get the feeling EW&F are finding their identity here. The foundations of later material can be clearly detected on these tracks. Kalimba's Story is a lively, upbeat piece of funky soul with a catchiness that their material had sometimes lacked on previous albums. Both the funky instrumental Drum Song and the strangely titled Tee Nine Chee Bit are loaded with bassy, funky appeal. This is the first EW&F album that is having consistently addictive tracks and feels as if it has some sort of structure. While the others had good parts, there was a patchiness to them.

Spasmodic Movements is a jaunty piece of jazz that sits a little incongruously among the funk but it doesn't stop it being most infectious. 
Rabbit Seed is a pointless thirty second interlude, the like of which the group often put on their albums. Caribou is another samba groove featuring Brazilian-style "ba-ba-ba" backing vocals. Open Your Eyes ends the album with a harmonious slow ballad. The album has fizzled out just a bit, it has to be said, but it still the group's best one thus far.

That's The Way Of The World (1975)

This was the album that established EW&F as global soul superstars. It sold lots and solidly developed their instantly recognisable style of brass-powered sweet, funky soul and led in the creation of this kind of soul within the broad genre. The tracks alternate between energetic funk and sublime ballads.
Shining Star is an upbeat, funky, brass-driven opener with some killer guitar parts. That's The Way Of The World is a sumptuous soulful ballad with would soon become typical EW&F vocals. It is a track that serves to exemplify EW&F at their very best. Happy Feelin' starts with some delicious percussion and continues into a slice of irrepressible, upbeat, funky fun. Some jazzy "vibes" parts in it too. All About Love is a slow, horn-driven ballad. The spoken part in the middle is very seventies, though. Yearnin' Learnin' sees the brassy but also bassy funk return in a similar way to that of Shining StarReasons returns to intoxicating, big production, polished balladry, with a superb falsetto vocal. 

Africano shows the group starting to experiment with ethnic, "world music" sounds and the percussion on here is outstanding, as also is the bit where the funk kicks in around two minutes in. There is also some excellent saxophone on this captivating instrumental. See The Light has some jazz influences in amongst its rhythmic, syncopated funk. A recommended album very much typical of its era.

Spirit (1976)

After That's The Way Of The World finally gave Earth, Wind & Fire platinum-selling success, with their sixth album. This, their seventh studio offering, built on that success with an even better album, which in many ways, was a defining moment in their career. After so many albums searching for a defining sound, they had reached it at last. They merged funk, soul, kick-ass brass and harmonious vocals superbly and now had found the knack of writing songs with killer hooks.
Getaway is an infectious funker, full of Parliament-George Clinton-style vocals as well as now typical EW&F high-pitched backing vocals and punchy brass. On Your Face was a delicious slice of sweet, funky, brassy soul, with Philip Bailey's vocal outstanding. This is proper groovy soul. Perfection of the genre. Imagination is a piece of laid-back, romantic late-night bedtime soul with a nice little funky guitar riff underpinning it. The vocal harmonies and brass bursts are once again peerless. Spirit continues in the sumptuous, heavenly soul vibe with a stately ballad. Saturday Nite was a hit and displays what was quickly becoming an identifiable Earth, Wind & Fire sound - gentle funk, solid bass, great vocals and horns to die for. The hook on the chorus is irresistible. 

Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the only songs by a group to name themselves, is also an intoxicating slow groove. Check out that funky but subtle guitar in the background. Biyo sees a return to upbeat horn-powered funk on an appealing instrumental. The group always put one or two instrumentals on their albums. Departure, before that, was a brief, twenty-seven second interlude. Burnin' Bush is a very enjoyable slow burner with yet another convincing vocal and superb, impeccable backing.

One cannot analyse albums like this too much more, to be honest, it is simply pleasurable brassy soul and that's that. I have used so many superlatives in the review, but I couldn't help it, the album deserves them. Earth, Wind & Fire had now become a very impressive group, almost a genre in themselves with their particular brand of soul. Their albums were very short, though, and over before you knew it, but sometimes that isn't a bad thing, it makes an album more concentrated and less sprawling than the post-2000's seventy minute offerings.

All 'n' All (1977)

This album has a strong case to be the quintessential Earth, Wind & Fire album, one which saw this multi-talented funk-soul group at the peak of their powers. It is an album full of soul-funk classics and joined together by some short instrumental interludes derived from “world music”, in this case the sound of Brazil. Along with a fascination with ancient Egypt (look at this album’s cover), founder member Maurice White also loved the ethnic sounds of Brazil's marketplaces and backstreets. They influence this album considerably in some of its instrumentation and samba-style grooves.

The album kicks off with the sublime, horn-driven upbeat and  classy, laid-back, slick funk of Serpentine Fire. In so many ways this song is classic Earth, Wind & Fire. Up next is even more of a classic, I guess, the sumptuous intoxicating, infectious Fantasy. It has it all, singalong refrains, catchy grooves, great brass, funky backing, wonderful vocals. Before the cookin’ funk of Jupiter we get an interlude of world music sounds for a short while. Then Jupiter bursts in, the brass pumping, the funky guitar driving it along and then there are the Stevie Wonder-style vocals taking the song to a higher level.

Love's Holiday is one of those super-smooth pieces of late-night soul the group did so well. Sumptuous. The next interlude, Beijo, actually ends too soon, just as its wonderful bass rhythm is getting going and some guitar arrives, it is over and into the tender, acoustic soul of I'll Write A Song For You. The song is very Marvin Gaye-Motown ballad-influenced. The funk is back with Magic Mind, possibly the funkiest cut on the album.

Runnin' is a funky, jazzy work out with occasional “ba-ba-ba” backing vocals and some seriously impressive trumpet along with a hypnotic bass line. 
The final interlude segues into the saxophone intro of the soulful ballad Be Ever Wonderful. It is a track full of perfectly harmonious vocals and supreme brass, bass and orchestration backing. Check out the amount of musicians used on this album, there are so many.

The album is over almost before you’ve realised. It is a beautifully vibrant, lively and also soulful album. Very representative of the best of the late seventies, soul-wise.

I Am (1979)

This album, from 1979, saw Earth, Wind & Fire at the height of their popularity. 1977's All 'n' All had sealed the deal and they were now guaranteed chart success, for both albums and singles. Their brand of dramatic, grandiose, brassy soul-funk had captured a considerable following by now. Despite it being the era of punk and there being a disco backlash, EWF didn't suffer. They were on the radio all the time in 1979.

This is probably their most instantly appealing album. It is not an all-out disco album, though, despite the more dance-y nature of some of the tracks. It is an EWF soul-funk album that dabbles considerably in disco. It does so far more so than on any of their previous albums, though. The group have moulded their sound to meet the contemporary trend for disco. Although I liked many of the previous albums, this one is probably my favourite. It is certainly their most overtly commercial.
In The Stone starts like a late seventies soundtrack to a movie before that typical EWF funk kicks in. The group had definitely found their groove by now and you knew what to expect from them - funk riffs, punchy brass, great orchestration and superb soul harmonies. Can't Let Go is an upbeat, ebullient slice of disco soul, with killer vocals and a captivating brassy rhythm. Everybody knows the sweet, sumptuous soul of the "end of the night" smoocher After The Love Has Gone by now. It is a wonderful song. It still sounds just as good today. Check out that saxophone at the end. Let Your Feelings Show is a big production number with that funky disco guitar driving it along, almost Doobie Brothers in style, as is the vocal too. Listen to that funky guitar at 3:25. 

Boogie Wonderland, with The Emotions, was a huge disco hit, and indeed, is often chosen as the classic example of the disco genre. It is vibrant, energetic and intoxicating from the very first note. You can't help but feel better listening to it. Those horns, those vocals. Oh man. It is impossible to dislike. 
There are no short instrumental interludes on this album, as had characterised their previous two offerings, it is substantial tracks from beginning to end. the hits keep on coming with the sublime brassy groove of Star. It is packed full of seductive backing and seriously good vocals. This is a seriously good song. Wait slows down the pace a bit with a lovely brass-powered soul ballad. Rock That is a short but punchy soundtrack-style instrumental, with the brass again to the fore and some buzzy rock guitar too. It merges straight into the more typical EWF laid-back harmonious, jazzy soul of You And I.

This was Earth, Wind & Fire at their commercial best. Having finally found a formula, this album exploited it to the full. More of the same was soon to follow...

Raise! (1981)

The hugely successful Raise! was released in 1981 and to an extent takes in contemporary gritty street funk vibes of the sort that artists such as Rick James, Kool & The Gang and The Brothers Johnson were putting out, while not straying too much from that unique EW&F dramatic brassy funk sound. 

The group were at the height of their popularity in the late seventies-early eighties and this commercially-successful outing exemplifies that. Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s different yet complimentary vocals are showcased perfectly, along with some great saxophone, some searing rock guitar in places and, of course, that poppy funkiness that they specialised in. Shalamar would be heavily influenced by this.

...and there was another ancient Egyptian-inspired cover too.

What was strange was that retrospective and indeed much contemporary criticism has been harsh on the album, a lot of it adopting a sniffy "they've had they day....more of the same..." tone. I am not sure the general public saw it that way, though. I remember it being really popular at the time. Let's Groove was a track you heard everywhere. Both You Are A Winner and I've Had Enough were energetically funky too. Lady Sun bubbles with the same funky enthusiasm. My Love was a classic EW&F ballad and Evolution Orange certainly had the funk in shedloads. What's to criticise there ? For me, not much.

Related posts :-
Stevie Wonder
Rick James
Ohio Players

No comments:

Post a Comment