* * * EARTH, WIND & FIRE. "Touch the World." Columbia. Few pop/funk bands have had as extraordinary a career as this one. At one point, only George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic could rival Maurice White's Earth, Wind & Fire for vision, originality and creative audacity. A veritable hit machine for most of the '70s, EWF cut its last album, "Powerlight," in 1983 before taking a hiatus to pursue solo projects.
This return record would be a polished and competent project for most other groups, but for fans with definitive EWF classics such as "That's the Way of the World" and "Gratitude" in their collections, it doesn't burn quite as brightly.
One cut that makes it a worthy effort is "System of Survival," written by newcomer Skylark, who also provides backing vocals and drums/synthesizer programming. Opening with a tape of President Reagan declaring: "I'm not going to tell falsehoods to the American people--I'll leave that to others," it segues into a dance-oriented commentary on society's ills. Packed with energy and passion, it gets the album off to a promising start.
The other stand-out track is the title cut, written by Rev. Oliver Wells. Like "System," it takes a look at contemporary dilemmas, among them teen-age pregnancy. Sung with churchy fervor, the song features gospel vocalists Edwin Hawkins and the Hawkins Family. The only thing that would have made this cut more powerful would have been more vocal input from EWF's Philip Bailey.
EWF's most memorable hits have been the ones that drew on Bailey's falsetto finesse. He sings lead on two cuts, his own "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow" and Robbie Nevil's "You and I." Both are fine. But neither is excellent in the manner of past Bailey-powered standards like "Head to the Sky" or "Reasons."
EWF has set some pretty high standards that are tough to meet, much less surpass. "Touch the World," while not great, is still good enough to further secure the group's niche in pop/funk history.