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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Times")

BLOCK: This is new music from the R&B singer John Legend, backed by the hip-hop group The Roots.

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Times")

Mr. JOHN LEGEND (Singer): (Singing) Cold, cold eyes upon me, they stare. People all around me, and they're all in fear.

BLOCK: The CD is called "Wake Up!" and it's full of politically charged soul tunes, most of them covers of songs from the '60s and '70s. This one, "Hard Times," was written by Curtis Mayfield.

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Times")

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) Having hard times in this crazy town. Having hard times. There's no love to be found.

BLOCK: The John Legend CD is one of several musical collaborations out this fall that have caught the ear of our music critic Tom Moon.

Hey, Tom.

TOM MOON: Hello there.

BLOCK: And what does John Legend had to say about the idea behind the CD?

MOON: Well, he and The Roots started talking about this, apparently, in the summer of 2008, and that was during the Barack Obama campaign and a time when people were talking about change in huge lofty terms. And a lot of the songs that they picked and eventually turned up on this record are songs that are the kind that shake you sideways and go, hey, pay attention or, hey, wake up.

BLOCK: You know, I read a review of a live performance of John Legend that said, you know, the original versions of these songs by, you know, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Bill Withers, had a real urgency and passion. And John Legend just isn't that guy. He's like Mr. Smooth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MOON: He's Mr. Bedroom Soul. He's like one of our new crooners, and he's never had to sort of bring it in this fierce way, and who better to coax it out of him than The Roots, who have been on this kind of social consciousness tip for a long, long time?

(Soundbite of song, "Hard Times")

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) There's no love to be found.

THE ROOTS: (Rapping) Check it out. Seventeen years and counting, I'm trying to climb up the rough side of the mountain. (Unintelligible) I have to do it without them.

BLOCK: Okay, well, let's move on from John Legend to new music from a band called Junip.

(Soundbite of song, "Rope & Summit")

JUNIP (Music Group): (Singing) We've got our rope and summit. Got our rope and summit, but we need to wake up. Baby, wake up.

MOON: Junip is the side project of sorts of singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez from Sweden, and he's a sort of an introspective singer-songwriter and, as we know, there's millions of those on the planet right now. And what's interesting to me about this is he and his cohorts here have really tried to figure out a way to retain the introspective sort of mood of his other music and yet give it a bump up rhythmically and make it sort of more engaged and give it more dimension musically.

(Soundbite of song, "Rope & Summit")

JUNIP: (Singing) We've got our rope and summit. Got our rope and summit, but we need to wake up. Baby, wake up.

MOON: It sounds to me like they've listened to a lot of ambient electronica. They sort of figured out how to translate this sort of hypnotic electronic pulse to acoustic instruments and, in the case of the keyboards, some vintage old-school keyboards.

(Soundbite of song, "Rope & Summit")

JUNIP: (Singing) Got our rope and summit, but we need to wake up.

BLOCK: Okay, so that's the band Junip and their new CD "Fields."

And the last CD we're going to talk about is one that I'm surprised I'm liking as much as I am. It's a collaboration between - get this - Elton John and Leon Russell, the longtime American songwriter, studio musician, longtime - also long-haired and long-bearded Leon Russell. And this is called "The Union." Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, "If It Wasn't For Bad, You'd Be Good")

Mr. LEON RUSSELL (Singer) and Mr. ELTON JOHN (Singer): (Singing) I knew from the first night I met you. Something just wasn't quite right. Loving like an innocent stranger. But something was just out of sight. How could I know that you had used me? Fill out some plan of your own. I couldn't know you'd abuse me. Leave me here hurt and alone.

BLOCK: And a lot of piano on this CD, both Elton John and Leon Russell, great piano guys. What are you hearing here?

MOON: Well, and they recorded together on two pianos. Everyone playing live in the studio. Elton John, when he was coming along in the early '70s, Leon Russell was a big star. He had a bunch of solo records. He had this hit called "Carney." He was sort of a big deal in the music industry. So Elton always treated him as an idol and viewed him that way. And so part of what you hear here is just pure mutual admiration society stuff.

(Soundbite of song, "If It Wasn't For Bad, You'd Be Good")

Mr. JOHN and Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) If it wasn't for you, I'd be happy. If it wasn't for lies, you'd be true. I know you could be just like you should. If it wasn't for bad, you'd be good.

BLOCK: And, Tom, this CD produced by T Bone Burnett, who is everywhere. What do you think about how these two voices combined, Elton John and Leon Russell?

MOON: Well, it's sort of sweet and savory, a little bit. You know, Leon Russell has just this great grizzled voice. He's - it's - and it sounds exactly the same now as it did in the early '70s. Elton, I think, learned how to do the kind of blues phrasing that he does from listening to Leon Russell.

(Soundbite of song, "Hey Ahab")

Mr. JOHN and Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) Hey, Ahab, can you tell me where I can take a ride out of here? Hey, Ahab, hoist that sail. You got to stand up straight when you ride that whale.

BLOCK: Well, Tom, when you think about these three CDs from John Legend, Junip - the band - and now Elton John and Leon Russell, is there a risk, a downside, do you think, in collaborations like these?

MOON: Well, when people have these careers where they're pretty well-known, any time they step out of their box, they're taking a risk. And what I like about this is, you know, here's John Legend, a guy who can sing ballads all day long, sort of saying, you know, this is something I really feel and I want to try and do this.

Likewise, Elton and Leon really taking steps to sort of say, look, we don't have anything to prove. Let us just throw down and see what we can come up with. And I feel that way about Jose Gonzales too. He's established himself as a singer-songwriter.

And often, when you see someone do that, and it's so hard to establish yourself anymore, when you see that happen, you can expect five or six records that are sort of in the same general area. And I think that, in each case here, these are not the same record over again.

BLOCK: Well, Tom, it's always fun to talk to you. Thanks so much.

MOON: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: That's music critic Tom Moon. We were talking about the CDs "Wake Up!" by John Legend and The Roots, "Fields" by the band Junip, and "The Union" from Elton John and Leon Russell.

(Soundbite of song, "Hang On in There")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) Whenever things seem hard to bear, don't give up. Hang on in there.

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) There ain't no time...

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