I was surprised by how much I liked Evolutionary, the new studio album from War and the legendary funk band’s first in 20 years. But I think I know why.
War is, you might say, a “dinosaur” band. Classic rock radio is where’s you’ll still hear their numerous hits, mostly from the early ’70s, including “Low Rider,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”, “The Cisco Kid,” and, from the band’s original lineup with Eric Burdon, “Spill the Wine.” Usually when a Golden Age band pushes on through the decades (or re-forms) and puts out new material, it sounds like a retread. Understandably, these bands want to give their fans – fans who’ve been fans for decades – what they expect.
With Evolutionary, out May 19 on Universal, War has done the same, but with a key difference: Their style never quite went “out of style” the way, say, southern rock or progressive rock did. Funky is still funky.
Rap, for example, often incorporates funk. So does some modern-day hard rock. As the press release notes, War has been sampled by The Beastie Boys, George Clinton, The Geto Boys, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Janet Jackson, Method Man, Redman, and Tupac Shakur, not to mention Barry White, ZZ Top, Portishead, Smash Mouth, and Korn. That doesn’t suggest a band that’s no longer relevant.
The buttery bass lines, steady feel-good beats are still here on this big batch of new songs. Tasty horn licks are here as well, along with Lonnie Jordan’s flat-affect vocals. The rhythm section and (of course) the recording quality are sharper than on the famous hits assembled on the remastered first-ever CD version of the greatest hits album, which comes packaged with Evolutionary. If anything Johnson’s vocals have grown clearer and more assured with age, but War’s music was never about vocal fireworks; Johnson’s understated delivery and the loosely delivered vocal harmonies have always been a key part of the band’s everyman appeal.
A number of songs incorporate rapping, including several tracks co-written and produced with hip-hop notable Malik Yusef. LA Fats raps on “That L.A. Sunshine,” which appears at the end again as a bonus track with gimmicky comedy contributions from Cheech & Chong, with whom War is co-headlining a number of dates on its current tour. By contrast, the pensive “It’s Our Right/Funky Tonk” grooves like a ticking clock, building up tension throughout as it dances along a single minor chord threaded with David Urquidi’s alternately liquid and punchy sax lines.
“Mamacita,” one of the most spirited tracks, calls on the band’s Latin heritage with a nod to Bob Marley. Reggae off-beats help drive the humorously atmospheric “It’s My Life” too. The band’s bluesy side comes to the fore in Stuart Ziff’s guitar work in the jumpy “Inspiration” and many other spots. The drawly “Outer Space” (and the less compelling “Bounce”) rattle the R&B link in the chain.
But it’s the compact, self-referential “This Funky Music” that offers the band’s quintessential beat and message: “This funky music makes you feel all right / This funky music makes you dance all night.” While the typical fan of War – or at least this one – may no longer be up for dancing all night, feeling good never goes out of style.
From the perspective of pure song, the romantic, gently moving “Just Like Us” is the album’s best track. It’s one of the Malik Yusef tracks, and so is the band’s version of the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong-penned Edwin Starr hit “War,” funkier than the original and just as good, featuring the USC Trojan Marching Band and a rap from Yusef. War’s version of “War” makes you realize how truly linked are the strains of pop music we call R&B, soul, rap and funk. Not to mention protest music.
I also like the zen power ballad “Everything.” Here Jordan bellows out a powerful message of harmony and peace, aided by passionate female background choir vocals.
Altogether, here’s an album that while rooted in the past does not, for the most part, sound dated. War has undergone lineup changes, and only Jordan remains from the original cast in the band currently touring and recording under that name. But funky is still funky. Why can’t we be friends? No reason at all.