Photo: Maryanne Bilham

The Isley Brothers and Santana: Power of Peace

At a time of great political and social upheaval, Power of Peace positions itself as a message of love and unity over hate and division.
The Isley Brothers & Santana
Power of Peace

Yes, it’s true. The Isley Brothers and Santana, two of music’s most sustaining acts, have decided to record an album together. The result is Power of Peace, a declaration of global love that collects a dozen soulful covers and one original, “I Remember”, featuring vocals from Santana’s wife and the band’s drummer, Cindy Blackman Santana.

The Isley Brothers are one of the most important bands in the development of rock, funk, soul, and hip-hop. Few groups have started so early and existed for so long. The Isleys were around before the Beatles, who themselves would skyrocket to superstar status after they recorded a cover of the Isleys’ “Twist and Shout”.

Across a career that’s lasted longer than a half century, the Isleys have consistently morphed their core sound to musical tastes of the day. As a result, their body of work shifts remarkably, not unlike David Bowie. But while Bowie was interested in exploring his idiosyncrasies, the Isleys were fascinated with conquering the market, releasing singles that consistently hit the pop charts when few could predict music’s next direction.

Power of Peace represents the remaining Isley Brothers’ return to music after nearly a decade out of the game. Ronald and Ernie released Baby Making Music in 2006 and a Christmas album (it’s better than expected) in 2007, around the time Ronald was convicted of tax evasion. The loss of their brother Marvin to diabetes in 2010 further complicated their personal lives. But during their inactive period, their influence persisted: their track “That Lady” was sampled by Kendrick Lamar for To Pimp a Butterfly’s “I” and featured Ronald Isley in the video.

“That Lady” would also play another role. In 2015, Carlos Santana invited Ronald onstage to perform the song, along with “It’s Your Thing”, one of the Isley Brothers’ memorable funk hits. The show opened up the possibility of collaboration.

Santana’s narrative also informs Power of Peace. The guitarist began the 21st century with a bang. His star-studded Supernatural featured vocals from Eric Clapton, Lauryn Hill, Dave Matthews, Rob Thomas, and Wyclef Jean and served as an entrance point for a younger generation that wasn’t alive for the band’s stunning 1969 Woodstock performance. Supernatural’s heavy use of Top 40 artists paid off, winning eight Grammys including Album of the Year. It’s no surprise that Santana would try the approach again.

Shaman featured Macy Gray, Seal, Dido, and unfortunately, the singer from Nickelback, as well as a grating track with nu-metal band P.O.D. called “America”. The follow-up All That I Am contained Steven Tyler, Will.I.Am, Big Boi, and Mary J. Blige, and Sean Paul, of all people. At its worst, Santana eviscerates his classic “Oye Como Va” by adding rapping from the insufferable Pitbull. Some of these collaborations seem as if Santana’s goal was just to collect prominent musicians regardless of their style — perhaps a new kind of rock star excess. Even though Santana’s guitar gleams throughout with its signature clean distortion, with all these artists, his modern period is uneven, the arrangements often edging to a style of adult contemporary that lacks edge compared to his ‘70s output.

Now these artists’ narratives coalesce for their next chapter, Power of Peace. Again, Santana joins forces with a collaborator, but at least this time he’s chosen only one band to work with. Simplifying the formula by choosing only covers (except for “I Remember”), as he did with his collection of classic guitar songs, Guitar Heaven, provides fewer variables and more focus for the project.

At a time of substantial political and social upheaval, Peace positions itself as a message of love and unity over hate and division. The musicians clearly care about their chosen source material, and as a result, the album features faithful recreations of stirring originals like the Chambers Brothers’ “Are You Ready People” and “Love, Peace, Happiness”, Eddie Kendricks’ “Body Talk”, and Leon Thomas’ “Let the Rain Fall on Me”. Sometimes the band takes their versions to the next level, as on “God Bless the Child”, which adds a full chorus of voices to Billie Holiday’s solo performance, and Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman”, which is bookended by Santana’s shimmering guitar.

As always, fans won’t be disappointed by Santana’s virtuosic solos. The guy doesn’t know how to strum a bad note. “Higher Ground” and “Total Destruction to Your Mind” are highlights, his expressive playing propelled by the song’s uptempo grooves. Santana has an innate ability to sneak in between vocal phrases, which keeps him from overwhelming the other musicians. Ronald has two tracks, “Let the Rain Fall on Me” and “God Bless the Child”, that are stripped down enough that they become podiums for his purring voice. The album isn’t front-loaded with rockers either. It actually picks up energy as it goes along, cresting on “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and the cleansing “Love, Peace, Happiness”.

There are some rough edges. Aside from a horrendous album cover that looks like it was plucked from a beginner’s Photoshop class, the Stevie Wonder cover of “Higher Ground” includes a misstep with the rap from Andy Vargas (Santana’s usual lead singer). The record also sounds a bit too clean, the product of the most pristine production money can buy. The closest we get to a little grit is the standard “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, but its flanged ending is still a controlled chaos. Album closer “Let There Be Peace on Earth” tries to breathe new life into the schmaltzy Jill Jackson/Sy Miller original, but it’s tough to work wonders on subpar source material. At most, it neatly encompass the album’s message, if somewhat bluntly.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying the impact of the Isley Brothers and Santana’s long and fruitful careers. Having released dozens of albums between them, they no longer have anything to prove and can work on projects truly meaningful to them. Power of Peace is that statement. The album connects us with the expression of love across 20th century songwriting, a sentiment that often seems to have vanished. But as the album’s selections show, that feeling has always been universal.

RATING 6 / 10