John Legend & The Roots: Wake Up!

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Artist: John Legend & The Roots

Title: Wake Up!
Release date: September 21
Label: Columbia

The new collaboration between neo-soul singer John Legend and ace hip-hop band The Roots is a lark dressed up as an important record, given the source material, mostly cover tunes from the Civil Rights Era.

Fans of John Legend and/or The Roots likely won't be disappointed with this effort. It's essentially a tribute record, and not a band one at that. But most of us would do better seeking out the original recordings of these songs by such legends as Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, and Nina Simone.

In fact, the single best thing that could come out of this collaboration is a new generation's discovering the soul greats of the late 1960s and early 1970s. My biggest problem with Wake Up! -- supposedly conceived during Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, which of course stirred up feelings of revolutionary thinking and fighting back among those of us who aren't neo-cons crazies -- is that it's not angry enough. At least not angry enough to match the intensity of many of the originals covered here. 

There are a couple of exceptions to these by-the-numbers renditions, though: Especially the eight-minute workout of Withers' anti-war tune "I Can't Write Left-Handed" is powerful and features a dirty guitar solo by The Roots' Cap'n Kirk Douglas. Also, opening track "Compared to What" ("Trying to make it real / Compared to what") is performed with a funky urgency missing on much of the rest of the record.

Legend's voice is in fine form on Wake Up!, but he's almost too silky smooth for the subject matter of these tunes. Even The Roots (who sounded so potent on their excellent How I Got Over, from earlier this summer) don't do enough to punch up these soul classics.

This project had the potential to be a home run, but, in the end, it's lacking the emotional muscle you'd hope from what is ostensibly a neo-protest record. 

John Legend & The Roots - Our Generation

Best song: The aforementioned "I Can't Write Left Handed"

Rotation: Medium-heavy

Deja Vu: Anything watered down.
I'd rather listen to: The just-released Iggy Pop/James Williamson record Kill City.
Grade: B

"Nothing Not New" is a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 41-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.

The "Nothing Not New" Archives

September 28 -- No Age: Everything in Between (A-)

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