John Legend And The Roots: Trying To 'Wake Up!' Old Soul Paved with good intentions and covering socially conscious soul tunes of the '60s and '70s, the soul singer and hip-hop band's new collaborative album adds little to its source material. Considering the powerful inspirations and admirable ambitions, how is that so much of the album feels soporific?
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John Legend And The Roots: Trying To 'Wake Up!' Old Soul

John Legend and The Roots. courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Wake Up! is a collaborative album paved with good intentions, with John Legend and The Roots covering socially conscious soul tunes of the '60s and '70s. Yet, considering the powerful inspirations and admirable ambitions, how is it that so much of Wake Up! feels soporific?

Cover albums are a tricky beast, especially in an era when some seem like they're cashing in on creatively inert "great songbook" projects. To Legend and The Roots' credit, Wake Up! isn't some kind of Big Chill rehash of obvious Motown hits. On paper, their 11-song playlist looks strategically smart; some tracks seem aimed at older audiences, such as the cover of "Compared to What," originally penned by the undersung Eugene McDaniels and given stunning vocal life by Roberta Flack on her 1969 debut First Take. Other songs wink at younger, hip-hop-era listeners, such as the cover of Ernie Hines' vigorous "Our Generation," a relatively obscure 1972 track given new life 20 years later when Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth sampled it in "Straighten It Out."

The album's problem isn't in the selection so much as the execution. Some may think covers need to be familiar enough to remind listeners of the original, but more often than not, a more radical interpretation is what elevates a good cover as something beyond a pale imitation. Listen to Al Green giving The Beatles' bubblegum "I Want To Hold Your Hand" a sexy Memphis makeover, or New Orleans' Hot 8 Brass Band puffing its way to greatness in its signature cover of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."

In contrast, Legend and The Roots are loyal to a fault -- making comparisons to the originals inevitable -- and too often, the band's arrangements are surprisingly flat-footed, neither improving on the source material nor departing far enough to put its own stamp on it. Likewise, Legend's phrasings can be awkwardly clunky, and his voice -- a pleasant though limited instrument -- lacks the dynamic range to master songs made famous by everything from James "Baby Huey" Ramey's gritty performance ("Hard Times") to Teddy Pendergrass' glorious tenor ("Wake Up Everybody").

Even if you've never heard the source material, many of the covers simply sound perfunctory; "Compared to What," for example, doesn't rise much above indulgent jam-band status. It's worse if you know the actual songs; Mike James Kirkland's "Hang On In There" was an obscure 1972 recording released on the local L.A. label Bryan, but it was one of the most sublime, socially inspired anthems of its era, magically falling together through a delicate balance of Kirkland's subdued but nuanced singing, lush string arrangements and a rhythm section playing deep in the pocket. The song is uncoverable -- you can't repeat a miracle -- and listening to Legend sleepwalk through his performance, with The Roots practically mimicking the original bar-for-bar, feels like a rote exercise at best, and an affront to the source material at worst.

This all said, Wake Up! hits its stride at the end, as the album shifts to more gospel-influenced songs such as one of Bill Withers' lesser-known compositions, the 11-minute "I Can't Write Left-Handed," originally released on 1972's Live at Carnegie Hall. The song, ostensibly a Vietnam War-era narrative of a returning injured veteran, has a hymnal quality and Legend -- always an excellent balladeer -- testifies impressively here, bringing a masterful sense of control and passion to his performance. Likewise, "Wholy Holy" takes on one of the most free-form songs on Gaye's What's Going On and again, Legend and The Roots infuse their cover with a moving solemnity; if Legend hasn't thought about recording a contemporary gospel album, he should.

The album closes with Legend's lone original composition, "Shine," which has "affecting anthem for closing montages" stenciled on it a bit too obviously (it's written for the forthcoming Waiting on Superman documentary). But it's still powerful and, more importantly, something that Legend indisputably owns as his. His and The Roots' desire to cover Wake Up!'s socially resonant songs is laudable, as is the attention they're bringing to the more obscure soul classics covered here. But in the end -- literally -- their loudest statement comes with a track inspired by songs of that era, but not beholden to merely copying them.