Tribute albums—at best—are usually a dicey proposition. If an artist is worthy of a tribute album, how do you, as a participant, make a contribution that lives up to the original artist’s standard? Even if you decide to play the adventurer and tinker with the sound of the song that you’re remaking, there’s a fine line between success and embarrassment. Worst of all are cover versions that just sound like better-produced karaoke. Needless to say, the list of unsuccessful “tribute” albums is long. Anyone remember the Jimi Hendrix tribute album from the mid-‘90s? What about the awful Stevie Wonder one that came out four or five years ago? Let’s not even mention last year’s Sly & the Family Stone tribute.
The fact that Interpretations: Celebrating the Music of Earth, Wind & Fire is as solid as it is proves that there are exceptions to every rule. On this compact, efficient compilation (which also serves as the relaunch of the legendary soul label Stax), the most successful soul band of the ‘70s is given their due by an impressive collection of today’s top R&B musicians (and one of their formidable peers). The album is overseen by EW&F founder/leader Maurice White, who obviously put the same care and love into selecting the included remakes that he did in co-creating the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Famers’ catalog of warm, positive funk jams and simmering slow grooves.
While most of the artists who participate on this collection stay fairly faithful to the original versions of these songs, the album’s one truly stunning moment comes from a dramatically retooled version of “Fantasy”. Performed by the eternally underrated Meshell Ndegeocello (with ethereal co-lead vocals by Sy Smith), and dedicated to the soldiers serving in the current Middle East war, it sounds like the original version as mixed up in a blender with Bad Brains and Esthero. While the original version had a flighty, cascading instrumental vibe that sounded like it’s title, this version keeps attempting to fly off into fantasy land, only to repeatedly get kicked down by reality. It’s daring, ballsy, and might just be the finest four minutes of music released so far in 2007. This alone should justify the purchase of the album.
The fact that every other song here feels like a letdown in light of “Fantasy” reflects less on the quality of the album than the fact that “Fantasy” truly blew my mind. There’s plenty of other stuff to enjoy here. Contemporary gospel superstar Kirk Franklin takes the band’s “September” (literally, by sampling the original version) and refashions it into an anthem of survival, using September as a metaphor for a time when things aren’t going so well, and using his talented choir of singers to give the lyrics a jubilant reading. On the more worldly side of things, there’s a seductively languid version of “Love’s Holiday”. This erotic retooling calls to mind Madonna’s refashioning of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” (on the ill-fated tribute album to that soul legend).
Even the interpretations that don’t deviate too far from the originals are well-crafted. Mint Condition, a Minneapolis funk band who sort of specializes in melancholy ballads, tackles “After the Love Has Gone”, quite possibly the most melancholy of EW&F’s ballads. While nothing can top Philip Bailey’s falsetto melodies on the original, the band does a very good job with the song. Same goes for Musiq Soulchild, who tackles “Reasons”, perhaps EW&F’s best-known song. Unveiling a falsetto that’s hardly been heard on any of his own albums, Musiq does an excellent job with this slow jam classic. As one funk trailblazer paying tribute to another, Chaka Khan jumps into the band’s 1975 “Shining Star” with a flair (and her typical bizarre phrasing) that only Chaka can bring.
Perhaps the most common thing about tribute albums? After listening, you almost immediately search your record collection in the hopes of locating those original grooves. Oftentimes, you do it to rid yourself of that lingering Bad Tribute Album effect. While I did flip on my iTunes and crank up some old EW&F after listening to Interpretations, it wasn’t due to the feeling that these songs weren’t done justice, it was because this fine set of remakes gave me a new appreciation for the music made by this legendary band.