Whoops!: Earth, Wind & Fire, “Heritage”

Written by Music, Whoops!

Even the greatest artists make mistakes — including the mighty mighty Earth, Wind & Fire, as Jeff Giles discovers in this week’s Whoops! column.

With 1975’s “Shining Star” and That’s the Way of the World, Earth, Wind & Fire became the first black act to top Billboard’s singles and albums charts simultaneously.

With their cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life,” they became the only band to emerge unscathed from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie.

And with 1990’s Heritage, they became the first multi-platinum, Grammy-winning act to promote a single with a Burger King giveaway timed to celebrate Black History Month.

“Big deal,” you might be saying. “Earth, Wind & Fire were in a weird spot in 1990 — they’d scored a comeback with 1987’s Touch the World, but times had changed, and their brand of funky, horn-backed R&B wasn’t as popular as it used to be. Who can blame them for reaching out to one of the biggest companies in the world?” And I would agree with you, if only the single — and the album it came from — didn’t suck so powerful bad.

Seventeen songs and almost an hour long, Heritage is a forceful collision of the awful and the unnecessary, an album so afraid of betraying the band’s roots that it can no more hint at them (as with the 35-second opening track, “Interlude: Soweto”) before rushing to wipe its ass on them with one melody-deficient, synth-saddled track after another (like “Takin’ Chances,” otherwise known as “Bits of This and That Mashed Together for No Good Reason”). It’s a garish, machine-driven mess.

It’s also lousy with appearances from artists who don’t belong on an EWF record, and who were clearly invited for no reason other than to increase the band’s hipness quotient by association — such as (son of a bitch!) the rap cameo from The Boyz on the title track, and two (son of a bitch!) guest raps from MC Hammer. The album does include one legitimately cool collaboration on “Good Time,” which unites the band with Sly Stone — but it came 15 years too late, and it’s still a clattering mound of electronic junk.

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Heritage is the kind of album whose best tracks tend to be its least memorable, simply by virtue of being less punishing. “Anything You Want” is just your garden-variety slow jam, complete with 1990 synth solo, but what it lacks in memorability it makes up for by not being the stunningly bad “Wanna Be the Man,” which includes some of the worst rhymes of Hammer’s career. (Yes, I understand what that statement means. I know.) Witness:

I got a plan
To take you by the hand
And whisper in your ear that I wanna be your man
So understand
My bottom-line plan
I do, do, do, do wanna be your man

And does that pungent little burst of sad begin with Hammer shouting, “Yo! Bust this”? Why, yes it does.

If only Heritage‘s lyrical dunderheadedness were confined to Hammer’s contributions (he also appears on the New Jack trainwreck “For the Love of You,” which includes the line “I want a lover / I keep thinking of her / I wanna be her friend, because I’m definitely not her brother”). This is an album thoroughly without a brain — it’s the kind of record where, when you see there’s a song called “Motor,” you know without listening that it probably begins with the sound of a motor. It’s an album that gives you a song called “King of Groove,” which includes the line “summon the royal prince.” So on and so forth.

It’s also got something for the ladies, although by “something” I mean “a pair of ballads that find Philip Bailey falsettoing all over your ass and finishing every other line with ‘darlin’,’ ‘sugar,’ or ‘girl.'” Bailey’s magic moment here is “I’m in Love,” a billowing cloud of sensitivity and synth flutes that is as warm and smooth (and makes roughly as much sense) as a fresh turd covered in baby oil.

But every cloud has a silver lining, no matter how battery-powered, and Heritage‘s is “Interlude: Close to Home,” a ballad so tenderly synthy that David Foster should have sued the band for jocking his adult contemporary mojo. It’s the best thing on the record. It’s also about a minute and a half long, and it fades out well before it comes to a sensible resolution, but when you’re talking about an album that gives you five and a half minutes of “King of Groove,” it’s hard to complain about brevity.

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