Wake Up! John Legend and the Roots (Columbia/Sony)
James Brown instructed with Say it Loud, Sly Stone urged with Stand! and Curtis Mayfield advised on People Get Ready.
Musically the sixties and seventies represented a shift in the music tastes of black America, where the I-songs of the blues were disregarded for the we-songs of soul.
Revisiting the empowering, socially conscious (and funky and fine) music of that era is R&B artist John Legend and broadminded hip-hop group the Roots, with the disc Wake Up! An album of crate-combing covers and one original (Legend's imploring ballad Shine), it's a ballyhooed collaboration that shakes sleepers' shoulders - saying "wake up" to those who hit the snooze button in the mornings of the "what now" post-Obama-election world.
It's still dark when Wake Up! arouses with flute flutter and the boom-bap drumming of Ahmir (?uestlove) Thompson, the producer and Roots drummer with the stylized handle and statement afro. The economic desperation of Mayfield's oft-sampled Hard Times (popularized by Baby Huey and the Babysitters) is infused with the rhyming of hip-hop artist Black Thought, though Legend's dietary moaning about "eating Spam, Oreos, and drinking Thunderbird" doesn't ring true.
Legend, an earnestly crooning hit-maker, is not a deep-soul singer à la Otis Redding or Brown. But if Legend's affecting baritone is swell for the Philly-soul centrepiece of Wake Up Everybody, a radio-friendly duet with Melanie Fiona done originally by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, he digs deeper on Compared to What, an anti-Vietnam War question recorded by pianist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris. "I love it low," Legend instructs the Roots at the funky tune's intro.
"The President, he's got his war," the Grammy-winner broods sultry-like, "folks don't know just what it's for." The track resonates, of course - "Trying to make it real, compared to what?" is a provocative inquiry in eras of disbelief.
Taking it another way, Legend and the Roots attempt to keep these songs "real" compared to the original versions. I believe they succeed. Donny Hathaway's sensitively adamant Little Ghetto Boy adds thoughtful raps by Black Thought and, on a prelude, Malik Yusef.
"Everything's got to get better" is the message of Little Ghetto Boy. Is it a hopeful assumption, or is it a make-it-happen mandate? Wake up, Legend and the Roots mean to say, and find out for yourself.
On Sept. 23, Spike Lee directs a live webcast of a New York concert featuring John Legend and the Roots, on Vevo.
OTHER NEW RELEASES THIS WEEK
Ravel: The Piano Concertos and Miroirs Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano. The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon)
One couldn't ask for a more cerebral pair of interpreters than Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The references to jazz in Maurice Ravel's G Major Concerto are just that: references. From the calculated rhythms, fastidious orchestrations and the occasional dreamlike absorption of one style into another in the first movement to the Satie-like, ambulatory chic of the "andante", Ravel never truly leaves French soil. (Canadian pianist Ian Parker's new recording of this concerto for Atma sounds more like Gershwin channelling Ravel than the other way around.) Similarly, in the Concerto for Left Hand, sternness makes way not for pathos but for something that is merely, or incidentally, lyrical - an alternative only. And if Miroirs, for solo piano, seems decidedly non-pictorial, the ear and the mind are busy nonetheless. Elissa Poole
The Trip Laetitia Sadier (Drag City)
The Trip is not a remake of the god-awful Peter Fonda film of the same name. But yes, it is a druggy outing. The French singer-synthesist Laetitia Sadier, of the British post-rockers Stereolab, crafts her debut solo album as a chic, light, trippy mélange. Her breathy, bilingual vocals are fairly emotionless, if not downright eerie on the deadpanned deconstruction of the Porgy and Bess lullaby Summertime. Mostly, dry electric guitars strum, harmonies echo and serene synthesizers subdue. By the Sea is upbeat, but even there a love affair is taking on water before things leave port. On the whole, the album is a slightly exotic version of the Fifth Dimension's Up, Up and Away, but made for the methadone-merry yacht-owning set, not for any bong-baked balloonists. Brad Wheeler
Hands All Over Maroon 5 (Octone)
Maroon 5 may not be the fastest workers in contemporary pop - it took them five years to deliver their sophomore release, and another three to finish this - but that doesn't mean they're not productive. After all, it would take most of their peers three or four albums to match the hit potential of the 12 tunes collected here. It's actually kind of stunning - from the infectious Misery, with its Miami soul rhythm guitar and big, sing-along chorus, to the slow-grinding punch of Stutter, the Maroons deliver tuneful, danceable pop songs more dependably as any band since the mid-seventies Bee Gees. And their power-ballads aren't bad, either. J.D. Considine
Continent & Western Fond of Tigers (Drip Audio)
It's a bit misleading to describe Fond of Tigers as defying categorization, but not for the reasons you'd think. Yes, the music these Vancouverites make is less about pigeon holes than flying the coop, and the presence of Swedish free jazzer Mats Gustafsson underscores the band's willingness to take chances and push envelopes. But this avant-pop combo is as much pop as it is avant, and there's always enough structure to these songs to keep the playing, even at its edgiest, from careering into cacophony. Indeed, there's something almost epic about the amount of melody layered into Upheaval and the lovely Sandro Perri feature, Vitamin Meathawk. J.D.C.
Walk With Me by Neil Young, from the forthcoming Le Noise (Reprise/Warner); on YouTube
A simple bluesy chug is transformed into something reverberating and near epic, with invitational lyrics - "I'm on this journey; I don't want to walk alone" - that could apply to a domestic partner or, perhaps, fellow traveller Daniel Lanois, the soundscaping producer and new Young collaborator.
"There's a prayer coming through the air, and it's shot straight through my heart/ Tearing open the evening sky and tearing me apart." On a mid-tempo, sturdily melodic Darkness on the Edge of Town outtake, lovers miles apart are united by radio.
Rail by Reid Jamieson, from Staring Contest (independent); myspace.com/reidjamieson
A gentler spin is put on the railway metaphor for passion, and yet a coal-burning intensity burns still. Gorgeous, sun-struck acoustic soul - sung fluently and femininely by the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter.
Back in Black by Carlos Santana (with Nas), from Guitar Heaven (Arista/Sony); on YouTube
Black, as in funeral black. Rap-rock, famously born of Aerosmith and Run DMC, is now dead - assassinated by this slick, noisy, super-unnatural abomination of an AC/DC classic. Unfortunately, with Santana's unnecessary new guest-sung album of the "greatest guitar classics of all time," resting in peace isn't an option.