Music

John Legend & The Roots: Wake Up!

The Roots continue their winning streak in 2010, while John Legend turns in what many will find to be the definitive performance of his career.


John Legend & The Roots

Wake Up!

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2010-09-21
UK Release Date: Import
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Before Wake Up!, I wasn't quite sure where I stood with John Legend. His debut found him miscast as a unique type of badboy, gospel-drenched vocals jumping from one girl to the next in an attempt to blur the lines between the then-sputtering neo soul movement and the direction of more mainstream R&B artists like Usher. It left an awfully confused taste in my mouth, as does the arc of his career. Evolver, his most recent album, was another cluster of half-baked attempts at crossover and experimentation. While it sounded remarkably different from Get Lifted, over four years it seemed little had changed with Legend as an artist.

But then I heard the sample of "Again" -- appearing on Legend's Once Again LP that I'd skipped over -- on the Roots' offering earlier this year (How I Got Over) and after listening to that album, I was thrown for a loop. Here, Legend's voice had risen far beyond merely good to occasionally fantastic, and all but one or two tracks were not just tolerable, they were superb. This discovery occurred just a few weeks ago, around the same time I got my first glimpse at what Legend and the Roots have been collaborating on since Evolver limped into the masses: Wake Up!.

Originally intended as a one off charity benefit type project, the combination quickly grew into an LP that, besides a few minor hiccups, makes a strong case for the collaboration continuing into the future. While all but two tracks here are covers, ?uestlove and James Poyser has done such an excellent job of arranging both the tracklist and the songs themselves that only the most well-versed poli-soul listeners will pick out the originals. The opening one-two punch of "Hard Times" and "Compared to What?" are particularly incendiary, and that hard Stax kind of funk appears once again on "Our Generation". But the band explores a variety of styles throughout the album, such as Donny Hathaway's meditative "Little Ghetto Boy" and Marvin Gaye's "Wholy Holy". They even dig in Jamaica's vaults, emerging with a fantastic cover of Lincoln Thompson's "Humanity".

The common thread throughout the entire project is revolution and political activism, something the extensive liner notes make blatantly clear. But the song selection is superb enough that the LP works perfectly fine as a straight up funk and soul record. In less capable hands things could get a bit awry, but not only does this band play tight as hell, they each find their moments to showcase individual talents. Legend goes from channeling Eugene McDaniel's raging, deep soul on "Compared to What?" to harnessing a heretofore seldom heard higher register for the aforementioned reggae jam. Captain Kirk delivers a righteously funky guitar riff for "Hard Times" that adds an extra hundred degrees to the song, and each time Black Thought appears will stir familiar feelings from the Roots' last few LPs that there is simply not enough of him here.

Owen Biddle, ?uestlove and James Poyser play more complimentary roles on the album, though all three are the spine around which the longer jams -- 12-minute protest song "I Can't Write Left Handed" and seven-minute self-empowerment jam "Hang on in There" -- unwaveringly cling. The way the band flits between these different motifs and feature players is entertaining, but it's honestly John Legend that takes the most away from this release. He not only delivers his most focused effort yet, but his most diverse. The way he sings on "Hang on in There" and "Humanity" is just a joy to listen to, while the way he riles audiences up with those opening tracks and "I Can't Write Left Handed" is pure spectacle. The band closes the album with "Shine", the one Legend-penned original song on the album (Malik Yusef also provides an original spoken word intro to Little Ghetto Boy), and passes their final test by cranking out a song much less mundane than Legend's previous attempt at world-unifying, "If You're Out There".

While it's simplicity is greatly noticeable alongside these masterworks of soul, "Shine" also feels as fitting a finale to Wake Up! as anything else could be. Again, this is a testament not only to the quality of the musicians or the songs they play, but the way they've strung them together like something of a live, in studio performance. This spirit is, above all else, what makes Wake Up! such a success. There is no pretense that this band will equal the songs they're reviving, though through seemingly unlimited talent they often come as close as possible. Wake Up! is an album explicitly from the heart, worn on its sleeve in a way few artists with such mainstream attention seem willing to match. What could have come off as a mediocre-to-good novelty project has, perhaps predictably, instead reaches the public coming just short of being a genuine contender for album of the year.

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Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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