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OPINION: New releases from Willie Nelson and Earth, Wind and Fire reviewed

September 5, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

This week I take a look at some new releases from Sony legacy, including Earth, Wind and Fire's new album in several years as well as Willie "the machine" Nelson's newest release.

Willie Nelson, "To All the Girls"

I think it's pretty safe to say that women love Willie Nelson, even at the tender age of 80. And why not? He shows more spunk and love of life and music than most people half his age.

Since Nelson went back to Columbia Records a few years ago, he's been on a run and hasn't stopped. I don't know of any performer that puts out more - and quite excellent - product than Willie, not to mention his never-ending tour. I think "To All the Girls" could be his fifth album release in the past three years, which is extraordinary.

The even better news is the new album - a reference to a hit Nelson had in the 1980s with Latin crooner Julio Eglesias -is it's the best out of the bunch, with Nelson doing heartfelt duets on a slew of excellent songs with some of today's best and most interesting female singers.

What makes the album so wonderful is the sense of vocal intimacy Willie had mastered over the years. Take that supple voice, add some truly empathic partners and you've got a duet album that blows away the tsunami of duet albums released by other artists the past five years. It seems Willie really does like these women, and these women like Willie. Nothing sounds "phoned in," and even if some of the vocals were dubbed, it doesn't feel that way.

Back in the "olden days," singers really did duets, both live and in the studio. The sense they are in the same room singing to each other is the most vital ingredient for a duet to work. Otherwise, it sounds like a hack job.

Willie's also pretty smart in who he chooses to sing with - his leading ladies here include Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, Roseann Cash, Sheryl Crow, Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn, Allison Kraus, Norah Jones, Shelby Lynne, Emmylou Harris and others. That's quite an impressive lineup, but that's not all - the music itself is excellent and the songs obviously picked with a lot of thought and care. Standouts include "She Was No Good For Me," "Bloody Mary Morning," "Til the End of the World," "Grandma's Hands" and "Walkin.'"

Willie should be proud women of such stature want to sing with him, and likewise. "To All the Girls" is a labor of love that sounds delightful, effortless and timeless. The disc is set to be released in mid-October. Highly recommended.

Earth, Wind and Fire, "Now, Then and Forever"

How does a performer grow old with grace and without becoming a joke? The answer is to do what Earth, Wind and Fire have apparently done with its upcoming release, "Now, Then and Forever." And that simple attitude is, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The band has been around long enough to know exactly what its fans want, and that is dancable, funky grooves with pop-tart lyrics, a REAL - not simulated - horn section and lots of mid-70s style funk.

Some sexy love ballads that sound good in front of a fire and a bottle of good wine also figure in the mix. Earth, Wind and Fire has been there since the beginning, and began as kind of an artsy, funk-jazz band in the late '60s/early '70s, clearly inspired by crossover artists, especially Herbie Hancock and James Brown.

Parliament and Funkadelic began sort of the same way, but while those offshoots of funk genius George Clinton strayed into outer space, Earth, Wind and Fire went in the other direction, bringing their mix of soul, funk, pop and disco directly to the people on the ground.

The result - huge chart and popular success, and a legacy that continues to this day. Headliners in the Golden Age of Hard Funk, EWF stayed relevant until the 1980s, when the band turned to electronica to keep from foundering in the post-disco age. While the music was watered down, the band still had amazing stage firepower and toured to an adoring public.

Fans of the '70s brand of EWF are going to love the new album, which harkens back to the glory days of funk, including outstanding, soulful vocals and again, that tight horn section. "Now and Forever" may not have the most inspiring title, and nothing here sounds like it could ever hit the charts now, but the music is pretty damned good for a supposed band of has-beens.

Legacy also has recently released another batch in its Essential Series, an excellent overview of bands and individuals under the Sony banner's best work. The new, two-CDs per artist batch are an eclectic selection, focusing on Carlos Santana, Nas, Britney Spears, Tammy Wynette, Sarah McLachlan and Bill Withers. While not all are my cup of tea, the essential series boasts a reasonably-priced alternative of the best of each artist at a great price. The Santana, Withers and Wynette are especially excellent, with some cool duos and outstanding music.

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