By Sean Fennessey
"Wake Up!" could have been a very different thing. Initially inspired to remake the Arcade Fire song of the same name, John Legend and the Roots ended up with a covers project. Only "Wake Up" didn't make the cut, and the implication of what an Arcade Fire reimagining could have meant -- a return of the favor indie rock has been paying R&B for the past few years, maybe -- transformed into a set of classic R&B remakes. The title stands thanks to the inclusion of a version of Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes' "Wake Up Everybody."
Fortunately, "Wake Up!" is a surprisingly rugged enterprise. Legend, so often a velvety and controlled vocalist, throws some ache and churn into his repertoire here. And the Roots, long one of the best backing bands in music, comply with brawny arrangements of a cleverly curated batch of songs. There are standard-bearers by Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye but also magical, unearthed deep cuts from Mike James Kirkland and Ernie Hines. The addition of a rapped verse from CL Smooth on "Our Generation" -- the Hines song famously sampled for Pete Rock and CL's "Straighten It Out" -- is the sort of move that makes this album as much fun to research as it is to hear.
Roots drummer ?uestlove, also producing here, is the likely source of all this mining. But not every choice is wise -- the decision to approach Bill Withers's vivid, wrenching antiwar screed "I Can't Write Left-Handed" and then extend the song to nearly twice its original running time, is arrogance mistaken for righteousness. Buton an album full of unusual choices -- none stranger than a major R&B star doing a covers album in 2010 -- they get points for bravery.
Recommended tracks: "Compared to What," "Our Generation"