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All 'n All
Earth, Wind & Fire

Columbia 34905
Released: November 1977
Chart Peak: #3
Weeks Charted: 47
Certified 2x Platinum: 10/26/84

Maurice WhiteAt their worst, Earth, Wind and Fire indulge in some of the most pretentious excesses in current black music. As on past Earth, Wind and Fire records, All 'n All is filled with leaded brotherhood platitudes, Star Trek sci-fi and stiffly poetic love songs. This sounds overwrought and depressing (and maybe it is). But there's a catch: I like the record, for like much current black music, All 'n All elicits a schizophrenic response. If the album represents some of the worst in black music, it also has more than its share of the best.

Earth, Wind and Fire's prime mover, Maurice White, is a former Chess Records session drummer, and his rhythmic sense is one of the group's redeeming features. The rhythm tracks on All 'n All are often enough to savage the most convoluted and awkward lyrics. "Serpentine Fire," a song about the spinal life-center philosophy of many Eastern religions, is a simple tango spiced by a subtle funk base and the incessant clanging of a cowbell. Other songs incorporate snatches of supple James Brown bass lines, delicate Latin beats and hard, insistent funk vamps.

White's production virtues don't end there, though. The lyrics of "Fantasy" ("Come to see, victory, in the land called fantasy") may be hard to swallow, but the music is as close to elegance as any funk song has come. Voices and a light touch of strings suddenly appear over a choppy, propulsive track, swell and swoop, only to disappear at the snap of a finger and pop up moments later for an exciting, powerful finale. White also utilizes an odd instrumental mix that gives equal emphasis to percussion (except the bass drum, which is usually played down), bass, rhythm guitars and stabbing, staccato horn bursts. The result is light but substantial, and it's become a model for many other bands.

Escapism and fantasy are prominent in the lyrics of many soft-soul groups, but usually (intentionally or otherwise) they're used humorously, or at least with tongue in cheek. At times, Earth, Wind and Fire is also capable of such fluffy warmth; in fact, torchy love ballads sung by Verdine White, Maurice's brother, have become a recent trademark. Verdine often sounds like a straining Eddie Kendricks and here, on "I'll Write a Song for You," which is distressingly close to MOR, he has the type of lush romantic vehicle that one wishes Kendricks still employed.

But that warmth isn't always felt, and despite the musical gloss, much of Earth, Wind and Fire's escapism seems unintentionally obsessive and desperate. It's easy to be seduced by the artfulness and grace of Earth, Wind and Fire's music and accept it for its craftsmanship and listenability. On that level, the group is challenging and fun. It's also easy to by cynical about a line like, "Jupiter, come from the galaxy/I want to meet you, to make you free," which seems as potentially dishonest and escapist as shooting dope.

There's a strange contrast to be drawn between All 'n All and Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. Riot was druggy, down and honest. All 'n All is flashy, bright and fanciful. Sly saw what he didn't want to see. The Earth, Wind and Fire album is like looking at yourself in the mirror and finding that nothing is there. Maybe that's what makes All 'n All so compelling -- and scary.

- Joe McEwen, Rolling Stone, 1-26-78.

Bonus Reviews!

The pyramids, the all-seeing eyes, the Egyptian icons, and the space cities that adorn the surrealistic cover of All 'n All, Earth, Wind & Fire's new album, might lead you to expect music on the weird side -- computerized burbles designed to accompany some kind of close encounter with extraterrestrial visitors. But don't be deceived by this Hollywoodish come-on. The music is delightfully earthy in its appeal, an aural collage of rich vocal and instrumental textures underscored by highly danceable rhythms that never surrender to triteness. Though the very name of this group partakes of astrological symbolism, and though the lyrics of their songs often hint of galactic mysteries, the nine men who compose Earth, Wind & Fire play a kind of music that might be called neo-progressive soul, for it is a full light-year beyond what most groups are doing these days, soaring to celestial heights while sending out waves of mundane thrills.

All the members of this company are instrumentalists as well as singers, which might account for the imaginative way they use their voices, punctuating long excursions into engaging melody with exciting bursts of high falsetto. An important factor in their development has been the leadership of Maurice White, whose background has given him a broad view of the musical spectrum. As a youth in Chicago, White served his apprenticeship as drummer with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, joining that combo back in the mid-Sixties when Lewis began to adapt his jazzy piano style to r-&-b hits, starting with Dobie Gray's "The In Crowd." Thus he was a forerunner of the jazz-soul-rock fusion common today. When White moved out on his own in the early Seventies, he drew on this experience, deftly incorporating jazz-flavored instrumentals and innovative singing into the popular format. As a percussionist, he used the kalimba (an amplified, Westernized version of the ancient African thumb piano) to introduce more intricate rhythms and colorings into the group sound.

All of these elements permeate this splendid new album. While it can safely be said that Earth, Wind & Fire is one of the few groups never to disappoint a fan, this set clearly ranks among their finest efforts, approaching the excellence of That's the Way of the World (Columbia PC 33280). "Serpentine Fire," the opener, is a high-stepper guaranteed to set even the most sluggish soul in motion, while "I'll Write a Song for You" projects a sweet folk flavor. The most interesting track here is "Runnin'," a long instrumental complemented by group scat-singing and jazzy horn solos.

As is usual with EW&F albums, there are some strange moments when conversation and snatches of melody appear from nowhere and fade away like ghosts. That adds just an intriguing touch of mystery, of course, as does the fact that this album has two pockets but only one record. There is supposed to be a poster in one of the pockets, but in my copy it was empty -- unless there was some invisible mojo tucked inside. If so, it worked.

- Phyl Garland, Stereo Review, 2/78.

An even blend of funk and R&B-energized rockers and some straight ahead, pop-oriented tunes makes EWF's newest one of its most appealing efforts. Maintaining its novel percussive sound, much in the manner of War; each tune jumps to a pounding rhythm. The group's trademarked smooth harmonies are intact and fronted by Maurice White's clean lead vocals which manage to sound both soulful and pop. Some tasty sax solos within the top notch horn section spice up the arrangements. And there are also a few guitar solos that deserve honorable mention. Best cuts: "Serpentine Fire," "Fantasy," "Runnin'," "Be Ever Wonderful," "I'll Write A Song For You."

- Billboard, 1977.

Focusing soulful horns, high-tension harmonies, and rhythms and textures from many lands into a first side that cooks throughout. Only one element is lacking. Still, unsympathetic as I am to the lyrics about conquering the universe on wings of thought, they make me want to shake my fundament anyway. B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

All 'n' All has "Serpentine Fire" (one of the most original funk tracks EWF made), a strong Brazilian flavor (Paulinho da Costa, Eddie Del Barrio and Deodato contribute) and "Fantasy." * * * * 1/2

- Steve Holtje, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

The Earth, Wind and Fire juggernaut kept rolling with this late '70s album. While they had turned more and more to the pop side, they had three more smash singles during this time, and their stage shows became even more varied, entertaining, and ambitious. Although this album doesn't have the same passion or emphatic vocals as some of its predecessors, it was a worthy addition to their '70s legacy. * * *

- Ron Wynn, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The sudden death of musical lieutenant Charles Stepney forced Earth, Wind & Fire's leader Maurice White into a rethink for the band's All 'N All album. In the absence of Stepney, who had arranged and co-produced all of the group's hit albums up to that point, White brought in long-time band associate Joe Wissert to co-produce the record and started to look outside the Earth, Wind and Fire camp for assistance. It resulted in a first collaboration with up-and-coming arranger/producer David Foster.

Foster, who would later co-pen the Grammy-winning "After The Love Has Gone" for the band, was brought in as arranger for "Fantasy." Though only a modest crossover hit, "Fantasy" was an indication of where the group was now heading.

"Serpentine Fire" provided a third Billboard Number One, as well as the ballad "I'll Write A Song For You." The fact White wrote the album after vacation in Brazil is self-evident on a series of interludes billed "Brazilian Rhyme," while the fusion of "Runnin'" was good enough to land a Best R&B instrumental Grammy in January 1979, exactly a year after All 'N All peaked at Number Three on the US albums chart.

As of 2004, All 'N All was the #68 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

Easily the most intense three minutes ever committed to tape by '70s hitmakers Earth Wind & Fire is "Sing a Song," the tightly wound but never fully erupting essay in funk lavishness that was a hit single from the band's 1975 album Gratitude. Next on the list might by "Reasons," the ballad showcase for the skyscraping falsetto of vocalist Philip Bailey from That's the Way of the World, which was also released in '75. In the time-compressed shorthand of pop, those are the must-have moments.

But they're not the whole story. At the time of these successes, the Memphis-based band, led by drummer, producer, and part-time mystic Maurice White, was attempting to move beyond singles. All 'n' All, which came out in 1977, was EWF's first and best attempt at developing a wholly satisfying album experience, a cycle in which every song mattered. The unifying thread was Brazilian rhythm. "We'd been hanging out for a month in Argentina and Brazil, especially "Rio," White recalled in the liner notes. "Man, we heard stuff that blew our minds, opened our heads up wide. I wanted some of it in our music." After studying the progressive funk of Banda Black Rio and the arty songs of Milton Nascimento, White and his core group wrote pieces that embraced undulating samba and chants heard at Carnival, and integrated elements of Brazilian rhythm into the EWF lockstep funk. The wordless focal "Runnin'" with is ba-bee-da-boo-whees, turned up on jazz radio, and several album tracks, including the jittery "Jupiter," were easily catchy enough to follow the high-gloss "Serpentine Fire" onto the radio.

White connected the tunes with a series of interludes built on the African thumb piano known as kalimba and street percussion; one, "Brazilian Rhyme," was based on a Nascimento song. Though brief, these pieces unified the album, and gave it a cosmopolitan sound that, like the music that inspired it, opened heads heads up wide.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

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