Album Reviews

John Legend & The Roots – Wake Up!

(Columbia) UK release date: 18 October 2010

Albums of cover versions normally set off multiple panic alarms among album lovers; people are cynical about cover projects, fearing that their beloved artists are making an easy buck or, worse, masking some sort of artistic roadblock by treading other people’s waters. But John Legend and The Roots have collaborated to produce a different beast altogether.

This is no ramshackle collection of the artists’ favourite songs, but instead Wake Up! is a concept album of sorts attempting to transpose the classic socially aware soul of the ’60s and ’70s to the current generation. With mid-term elections and a Sarah Palin inspired mob looming on the US political horizon it’s important to be reminded that the recently renewed spirit of positive political activism didn’t end with Obama’s inauguration. Special care has been made to ensure that songs in this collection are still relevant some 30 or 40 years on and their messages are not just confined to an American audience.

Wake Up! might not have the UK’s slashers-in-chief diving for cover, but it is nonetheless a brilliant collection of tracks and something which pays a great deal of reverence to the original subject matter. Such respect for the source material and the understated production make this album a winner- witness the brilliant Our Generation which not only offers you a vibrant version of the original, but also guests C L Smooth who sampled the track on the old-school classic Straighten It Out.

The album kicks off with a blazing rendition of the much overlooked Baby Huey/Curtis Mayfield track Hard Times – a song so well written in the first place that all the water that’s passed under the bridge since hasn’t diluted one drop of it.

Of course, if you’re going to make a collection of classic soul with a political edge, then it’s obligatory to leave an offering at the altar of Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Goin’ On, and Wholly Holy puts in an appearance. The album’s undeniable highlight is their jaw-dropping take on Bill Withers‘ classic anti-Vietnam war song I Can’t Write Left Handed. Already an epic track in Withers’ hands, this story of a wounded solider is stretched to a colossal 12 minutes and hits every soulful and funky note along the way. Elsewhere, their cover of Nina Simone‘s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free is more familiar to UK listeners as the theme to the BBC’s long-running Film programme, but luckily there’s enough going on to banish any mental images of Barry Norman and Jonathan Ross.

The album concludes with Freedom – an original Legend composition that wouldn’t sound out of place on Stevie Wonder‘s Innervisions LP. It’s an appropriate full stop to a collection not only pays homage to their soul ancestors, but also establishes the artists’ own credentials as contemporary soul giants. For The Roots in particular such notoriety has been a long time coming and well deserved.

It’s sure that some songs may change your life, but only a handful have changed the world. The songs in this collection serve for a timely reminder that hope and consciousness through music still contains some currency – with the added bonus that it’s also a fine piece of work in its own right.

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