Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Earth, Wind, and Fire Album (1970-1987) (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

While never quite as openly political or boundary-pushing in its heyday as Marvin Gaye, as painstakingly obsessive about their albums as Stevie Wonder, or as freaky as Parliament and Funkadelic, Earth, Wind, and Fire easily rank among the best R&B album acts of the ‘70s. It’s a bit mystifying, particularly in light of their reputation as one of the greatest live acts of that decade (indeed, they continue to be a reliable concert draw to this day, even without the presence of band founder Maurice White, who sadly recently passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease), that they so rarely pop up in discussions among critics about the greatest studio albums of the ‘70s. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the band’s sense of playfulness. Not that they didn’t also strive for great art and usually succeed at it, but they wanted more than anything else to leave people feeling happy, and they succeeded at that as well, as dancefloor classics like “September” and “Let’s Groove” have proved. But how do their studio albums stack up against each other? We’ve gone through the band’s first fifteen albums for you – both the good and bad – and put each to the test.
 
Earth, Wind & Fire (1970, Warner Bros.)

C+

EWF’s first two albums are terribly hard to find, both of them having met with very little sales response, the band having only a modest – though passionate – cult following at the time. They’re certainly worth picking up if you own everything else, but be aware that they also don’t sound all that much like the band you’re familiar with from the radio. The band’s lineup is much different, for starters, Maurice and Verdine White being the only members from the band’s heyday who are on this album. Unlike the all-male lineup of the group’s heyday, this era of the band featured a female singer, Sherry Scott, who shared lead vocals with the equally short-lived member Wade Flemons. The band already has a real knack for a funk groove (as seen on “Moment of Truth” and the album’s best cut, “C’mon Children), and Maurice White debuts his trademark kalimba playing (on the closer “Bad Tune”) that would help to define the band’s sound. The vocals, however, too often make the group sound more akin to, say, the Friends of Distinction or Undisputed Truth, and it just waters down the music too much to work all that well. The songs are fairly decent, but they also lack the polish and the strong hooks of the band’s later material. It’s certainly a promising debut, but the band is still clearly learning.

The Need of Love (1971, Warner Bros.)

C

The least essential album of the band’s first ten years together, The Need of Love is actually quite a fascinating disc. Like the debut, it’s extremely atypical of the sound the band is known for, but this is a much less commercial album than its predecessor. The band’s penchant for funk is downplayed here in favor of a more jazz-tinged sound, and the nearly ten-minute opening cut, “Energy,” is actually a rather avant-garde full-blown freeform jazz outing with very little obvious structure to it. “Beauty” is much more appealing, and the band also does a fine cover of Donny Hathaway’s “Everything Is Everything,” but as inspired and wildly intriguing of a listen as the disc is, none of the songs will exactly stick in your head, either.

Last Days and Time (1972, Columbia)

B–

The band’s first release for Columbia also sports a radically different lineup. Former vocalists Sherry Scott and Wade Flemons are now gone and have been replaced, respectively, by Jessica Cleaves and Philip Bailey, a man possessing what is arguably the best falsetto in all of R&B. Keyboardist Larry Dunn, a crucial ingredient of the band’s sound, and second drummer Ralph Johnson are also brand-new additions here. The band’s sound is still a bit on the raw side and the presence of a female vocalist still doesn’t quite work for the band, but they seem to be a bit more focused this time and are slowly starting to finally find their niche. While they haven’t quite yet figured out how to write strong singles, the selection of songs is better than that on The Need of Love, and the new band particularly shines on the Bread remake “Make It with You” and the impressive eight-minute instrumental “Power.”

Head to the Sky (1973, Columbia)

B+

The first truly great Earth, Wind & Fire album, the band has nearly solidified its lineup after endless personal changes. Ronnie Laws and Roland Bautista have left and have been replaced with guitarist Al McKay and saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk. The new lineup gels wonderfully, and the band has finally found its sound. The songcraft is still a tad bit rawer than what would follow, but they’re showing clear improvement as songwriters. “Keep Your Head to the Sky” would become a quintessential song in the band’s canon, while “Evil” and “Clover” are both impressive as well.

Open Our Eyes (1974, Columbia)

A–

Open Our Eyes is a real turning point for the band, and for several reasons. Jessica Cleaves has departed at this point, and the band has simply chosen to continue on without a female vocalist rather than replace her. Talented through Cleaves was, the presence of a female singer in the band always made the unit more vulnerable to comparisons to Sly & the Family Stone, and this may be the first album on which they truly don’t sound like anybody but themselves. Better yet, the group has finally figured out how to write first-rate singles, and this album would finally land the group its first two appearances in the Top 40. The first of those hits, “Mighty Mighty,” may be the funkiest platter the band has laid down to this point, while its follow-up single “Devotion” is the first of many instant-classic ballads showcasing Philip Bailey’s amazing falsetto. “Kalimba Story” wasn’t a major hit, but it perfectly encapsulates the EWF experience.

That’s the Way of the World (1975, Columbia)

A+

Technically a soundtrack to a long-forgotten movie of the same name featuring the band (though no one ever remembers that!), this album is the band’s masterpiece. While only eight tracks long, the album is brilliantly sequenced and superbly mixed, the arrangements overflowing with all kinds of intriguing ear candy to merit repeated listens (particularly Maurice White’s always-impressive kalimba work). Most importantly, the band’s songwriting chops have never been better and their remarkable instrumental abilities and sense of funk demonstrated on prior albums (and best showcased here on the breathtaking percussion-heavy instrumental “Africano”) are now accompanied by strong melodies that grab you on the very first listen. The Number One hit “Shining Star” brings a more pronounced rock element to their brand of funk with great results. Its ending is pure brilliance, the instruments dropping out layer by layer until all that remains are the vocalists, who now sound like they’re singing right into your ears. It’s a brilliant little piece of mixing, and deliriously fun to listen to through headphones. The title cut and the R&B classic “Reasons” are the band’s finest ballads to date, both featuring career-defining performances by Philip Bailey. Be sure not to turn the album off too early, as the instrumental passage hidden at the end of album closer “See the Light” does a remarkably clever job of weaving a recurring motif from earlier in the disc into a piece of field music. It’s an ingenious way to end the disc. That this album doesn’t get the same degree of praise from critics as, say, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life is unfortunate, because this truly is every bit as good as either of those albums and stands as one of the quintessential R&B albums of the ‘70s.

Gratitude (1975, Columbia)                                                               

A +

The double-disc Gratitude is technically a live album for most of its running time, but I include it here since five of the thirteen credited tracks are new studio recordings. (There are also two uncredited brief instrumentals.)  There are also several excellent songs from the stage portion of this package that make their debut on an EWF album here, including the awe-inspiring ten-minute instrumental “New World Symphony” and their own rendition of “Sun Goddess,” a Ramsey Lewis hit that the band had both appeared on and produced.  The stage portion of the disc stands as one of the finest live albums in R&B history, the band making it clear – even without their famous stage visuals – why they’re known as one of the greatest live acts from the ‘70s of any genre. The new studio cuts are every bit as great, highlighted by the bouncy “Singasong” (a Top Ten hit), the effervescent “Sunshine” and the soulful ballad “Can’t Hide Love,” also a Top 40 hit. It may consist primarily of live material, but it’s still an absolute must-own for any EWF fan.

Continue reading Part 2!