There are two types of people in the world: those who are ecstatic when they spot the first holiday decorations going up in early November, and those who internally cringe at the thought of hearing Baby It’s Cold Outside in a department store just one more time. I have to admit, while I’m not that big on adorning the streets with mistletoe nearly two months early, I can’t get enough of Christmas carols and holiday-themed music. I’m also a sucker for soul music, solid gospel choirs and outrageously flared corduroys, so when essential crossover band Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) announced the release of a holiday album this year I was unapologetically excited.
The first, and only, holiday album from the legendary outfit opens with Joy To The World, bringing their quintessential exuberance and soul to this beloved carol. With an uplifting horn section, choral backing, guitar solos and encouraging invitations to join in, this track is so full of joy it could make the grouchiest of Grinches crack a smile. The interplay between shimmering piano, lush strings and super smooth vocals on the super-group’s take on the sacred hymn O Come All Ye Faithful slows the album’s pace. The contrast between Maurice White’s strong tenor and Philip Bailey’s falsetto is still as affecting as it was over 40 years ago.
The group updates several carols and holiday standards, inserting typical soul and RnB harmonic structures into Away in a Manger, layering numerous beautiful African percussive instruments to interpret the militaristic drumming patterns of The Drummer Boy, and swapping unrelenting energy for soothing and sensual piano-led jazz in Everyday is Christmas. And just when you think What Child Is This is going to be a more classic rendering of the much-loved carol, the haunting string introduction transforms into syncopated guitars, percussion and horns. EWF even take the genius of their famous RnB-disco track September, with original vocals from White) and turn it into a modern holiday classic, fittingly renamed December. Happy Seasons also takes inspiration from EWF’s classic hit Happy Feelings; its lively percussion and buoyant horns bring that funky feeling to the holidays.
While there might be something (arguably) kitsch about unconditional love of Christmas music, there’s definitely nothing uncool about Earth, Wind & Fire. The band’s music has always been uplifting, infectious and celebratory, bridging the gap between several genres and musical styles. So how appropriate is it that they bring that spirit and energy to what can be the most divisive and stressful time of the year with their 21st studio album Holiday.