Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Earth, Wind & Fire

  • Earth, Wind & Fire [Warner Bros., 1971] C+
  • Need of Love [Warner Bros., 1971] C+
  • Last Days and Time [Columbia, 1972] C+
  • Head to the Sky [Columbia, 1973] B-
  • Open Our Eyes [Columbia, 1974] A-
  • That's the Way of the World [Columbia, 1975] B+
  • Gratitude [Columbia, 1975] B
  • Spirit [Columbia, 1976] B
  • All 'n All [Columbia, 1977] B+
  • The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. 1 [Columbia, 1978] A-
  • I Am [Columbia, 1979] B
  • Faces [ARC/Columbia, 1980] C+
  • Raise! [Columbia, 1981] B+
  • Powerlight [Columbia, 1983] A-
  • Electric Universe [Columbia, 1983] B
  • Touch the World [Columbia, 1987] B+
  • The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. II [Columbia, 1988] A-
  • The Classic Christmas Album [Legacy, 2015] *

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Earth, Wind & Fire [Warner Bros., 1971]
This postsoul big band isn't as messy as the sum of its cross-references; on the second side especially, the heavy guitar, post-Memphis horns, and off-center 4/4 all work to similarly disquieting effect, and even the African kalimba is suitably weird. But at times the brass locks into gear just like Vegas, and the expert vocal harmonies neither fit the concept nor assert any personality of their own. Worse, even the songs that work when you're listening have a way of slipping away unnoticed once the record is over. C+

Need of Love [Warner Bros., 1971]
Busy, busy. I do admire "Energy," a jazz-rock horn experiment in the neglected tradition of Steve Marcus's Tomorrow Never Knows--but "Energy"'s lyrics comprise a recitation that rhymes "prana" and "nirvana." C+

Last Days and Time [Columbia, 1972]
New label, damn near a new band, except for drummer-vocalist (-leader) Maurice White and bassist-vocalist Verdine White. Things sound a lot less confused, but EW&F centers around its rhythm section for a reason--rhythm is what they have to offer. Granted, you can hear why they signed up reed man Ronnie Laws on "Power," and you can hear why they signed up Philip Bailey whenever he raises his voice to the highest. Maybe next time we'll figure out why their best tune is called "Mom" and their two covers are "Make It With You" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Only I'm not sure we want to know. C+

Head to the Sky [Columbia, 1973]
In the beginning Maurice White created Hummit Music. But not until the morning of the fourth album did he come up with a tune to match, complete with sweet clear harmonies and sinuous beat. Catchy title, too: "Evil," to be dispersed by prayer. Most of the first side keeps up the good work, although only rarely--as on the falsetto climax of "Keep Your Head to the Sky"--is it quite as transcendent physically as the lyrics would seem to demand. But the mood jazz excursion on side two exposes White's essential fatuousness. "Zanzibar," it's called, as befits a travelogue; its saxophone solo (by Ronnie Laws's replacement, Andrew Woolfolks) could make Alice Coltrane blush. B-

Open Our Eyes [Columbia, 1974]
On side one the vocal systole-diastole finally comes together, with Philip Bailey definitive, as he deserves to be; Maurice White, meanwhile, provides tuneful, relatively unselfconscious songs over a light Latin-funk beat jarred by grunts, horn riffs, and keyboard squiggles. A very pleasant surprise. Side two, where they always stretch out and often make fools of themselves, is a survey of EW&F's roots, from the kalimba-hooked "Drum Song" through street rap through 1:41 of expert cocktail bebop (didn't know Maurice had that rim shot in him) through schlock scat to the devotional theme song, written in 1958 by one Leon Lumkins. A fucking tour de force. A-

That's the Way of the World [Columbia, 1975]
Trailing Parliament-Funkadelic in my personal post-Sly sweepstakes, but ahead of War (bombastic), Kool & the Gang (culturally deprived), and hosts of others, this unit can do so many things it qualifies as the one-man band of black music even though it has nine members. Here ethnomusicology and colloquial homiletics are tacked onto the funk and soul and doowop and jazz, which makes for an instructive contrast--the taped-in-Africa Matepe Ensemble, whose spontaneous laughter closes out the coda, versus Maurice White, whose humorless platitutdes prove there's more to roots than turning a mbira into an ersatz vibraphone. B+

Gratitude [Columbia, 1975]
The three live sides reflect their genuine jazz orientation, flowing along enjoyably and unexcessively and offering more new material than is superstar practice. But orientation ain't chops, and despite my prejudices I'd rather hear Dvorak's New World Symphony than the Whites'. The four songs on the studio side are enjoyable, too--took them a while to figure out their formula, but now they've really got it down. The news that "the good Lord gonna make a way," however, is gonna come as a surprise to Him, Her, or It. B

Spirit [Columbia, 1976]
EW&F are the real black MOR, equivalent in their catchy way to the oh-so-expert Carpenters, though of course they're much better because they're black--that is, because the post-Sly and harmony-group usages they've had to master are so rich and resilient. Most of these songs are fun to listen to. But they're still MOR--the only risk they take is running headlong into somebody coming down the middle of the road in the opposite direction. Like the Carpenters. B

All 'n All [Columbia, 1977]
Focusing soulful horns, high-tension harmonies, and rhythms and textures from many lands onto a first side that cooks throughout. Only one element is lacking. Still, unsympathetic as I am to lyrics about conquering the universe on wings of thought, they make me shake my fundament anyway. B+

The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. 1 [Columbia, 1978]
Despite some annoying omissions, notably "Serpentine Fire," this sums them up--ten exquisitely crafted pop tunes in which all the passion and resonance of black music tradition are blended into a concoction slicker and more sumptuous than any white counterpart since Glenn Miller. A-

I Am [Columbia, 1979]
Sexy, dancey pop music of undeniable craft, and it doesn't let up. But as we all know, they could be doing a lot better. B

Faces [ARC/Columbia, 1980]
Leaping from mediocrity to wretched excess, they throw two discs on the market when they don't have the material for one. The lead cut/single, "Let Me Talk," is too political in its fluffy way to break down the racism to today's top 40, and after that they never top the Doobies rip on side three--certainly not with the title number, which I blame on the fools who think they abandoned their principles when they gave up ersatz jazz. C+

Raise! [Columbia, 1981]
As long as they hew to a few simple rules--up on the tempos, down on the bullshit, etc.--there's no reason why these fellows can't turn their sparkling harmonies and powerful groove into a pure, contentless celebration of virtuosity. I mean once a year--at least in theory. But this is the first time the possibility's ever even occurred to me, which must mean they felt a show of strength was due. B+

Powerlight [Columbia, 1983]
Since classic EW&F succeeds in spite of Maurice White's universalist hoohah, the paucity of inspirational numbers is a blessing. The one that celebrates voting is gratifyingly practical, the one that celebrates children's eyes one too many, and otherwise we're free to gape at this band's spectacular popcraft. Their sonic affluence and showtime groove encompass whispering strings no less perfect than their JB guitar beats, Funkafunnies harmonies no less schmaltzy than their Lionel Richie homages, and when the synthesis is this catchy it's the best argument for universalism they'll ever make. A-

Electric Universe [Columbia, 1983]
Careerist ebb-and-flow notwithstanding, I'm tempted to blame the letdown on the return of Philip Bailey, whose falsetto spirituality might well have disoriented what's turned into a great pop show band. Especially if his own attempted breakthrough as a pop solo is any example. B

Touch the World [Columbia, 1987]
Though supposedly they've reconstituted as a lean quintet, the credits credit Maurice White and hired guns, notably Philip Bailey who sings lead on two cuts, shares lead on three, and backs up wherever. White gets only two compositions, which may explain why such a fabrication seems more in touch with the world than his solo album, where he made the mistake of expressing himself. Canceling out El Lay buy-a-song like "Every Now and Then" are the side-openers, the strongest protests this seminal pop transcendentalist has ever gotten down. Both focus on money, something he obviously has a feel for. B+

The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. II [Columbia, 1988]
Vol. I was 1978 and there are still only two '80s cuts, with 1980's "Let Me Talk," all that's worth salvaging from Faces, and 1987's "System of Survival," the closest they've ever come to actual protest, both missing. And you know what? At one nullity and one dubiety a side, it's every bit as solid as Vol. I, which happens to be the best album they ever released. I should mention that because I prefer their slick early-'80s decline to their soulful late-'70s ascendancy (not to mention their fusoid early-'70s launch), my tastes in this matter are unorthodox if not crackpot. But if you could scarcely give a shit, which at this late date is sane enough, here's some slick, soulful fun. A-

The Classic Christmas Album [Legacy, 2015]
Why the hell not? ("Joy to the World," "Sleigh Ride," "Get Your Hump on This Christmas") *

Further Notes:

Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies [1990s]