Thursday, August 6, 2009
Released in January of 2002, Motown's Love Songs contains 14 love songs and ballads Michael Jackson recorded, either by himself or with the Jackson 5, during his time on Motown in the early '70s. There are a few familiar songs here, such as "Who's Lovin' You," but the Love Songs series prides itself on mood, not hits, while providing just one or two tracks as collector's bait (a previously unreleased version of "I'll Be There" or the original mix of "Call on Me," for example). This means that it's the odd collection that sort of appeals to the dedicated, since it gives a different spin on the artist (but not really, since it recycles the catalog), and it sort of appeals to the casual fan, since it digs through albums to provide what they're looking for (but not really, since there aren't that many big hits here). So it fulfills the promise of the title quite well, but that doesn't necessarily mean that a lot of people will really need it (unless they're looking for mood music, of course).
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Imagine a rock & roll version of the Ray Coniff Singers put together by the composer of the soundtrack to the film Hurry Sundown, covering the ten tunes by Bob Dylan which the public found his most recognizable at this point in time. That's the product of the man who had a number one hit with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the tune from the 1968 Clint Eastwood film. The singers and musicians are not listed; only the producer, arranger, conductor, album coordinator, and engineers. Great art it is not, but as a piece of pop history it is pretty intriguing. "Lay Lady Lay" is ridiculous, but they do it all straight-faced. This isn't Patty Duke attempting to sing on her Valley of the Dolls album, nor is it Mrs. Miller being a total farce, but it inadvertently comes off just as whimsical. Songs like "The Times They Are a Changin'" call for grit and a rough edge, and what they have here is the complete opposite. If Montenegro was going to be this bold why didn't he include "Masters of War"? Or take it a step further and follow this album up with an early-'70s tribute to Black Sabbath? A lone flower adorns the front and back cover, and it looks like one of those Pickwick budget deals, but the shame of it is "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly" was a monster hit with unique and thought provoking sounds. There is none of that here. The name Hugo Montenegro splashed on this cover makes it appear like the listener is going to get stunning original re-creations of Bob Dylan's music. Now had they given "The Mighty Quinn" and "Like a Rolling Stone" that deep, dark, mysterious music which burst out of the Clint Eastwood film instead of this second rate attempt to cop Ray Conniff's riffs, this would be a masterpiece. Liz Damon's Orient Express does it much better on "1900 Yesterday," and they don't prostitute Bob Dylan's name in the process to try to sell some records. Could've have been much more, but it isn't.
Not a concept album, but a song cycle depicting life in southern California in the late '60s, Realization is a fine cycle to catch a ride on. It's also a serious surprise -- when psychedelia reared its head in 1967, the results were frequently disastrous for those performers who'd been specializing in straight-ahead rock & roll, and few had rocked harder or more straight-ahead than Johnny Rivers. Instead of jumping on a bandwagon that had nothing to do with where he was musically, he hijacked the sounds of psychedelic rock -- much as the Temptations did at Motown -- and took it where he was going. Acting as his own producer for the first time, Rivers opened up a slightly gentler side to his work that's equally valid and a lot more interesting, if not quite as exciting as his rock & roll classics. After a few sonic digressions as a lead-in, "Hey Joe" gets going, carrying listeners into Rivers' gorgeous rendition of James Hendricks' "Look to Your Soul." His own achingly beautiful "The Way We Live" follows, and then comes Hendricks' "Summer Rain," which turned into Rivers' last big hit of the 1960s. And then he has the temerity to take "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and make it prettier and harder -- but less spacy -- than the Procol Harum original; from there he plunges into blue-eyed soul on "Brother, Where Are You." The surprises continue right through to the rather delicate, introspective reading of "Positively Fourth Street" at the close, Rivers succeeding in evoking a vast array of thoughts and emotions. For his trouble, helped by the two hits, he was rewarded with a Top Five charting album, and one that has continued to find new admirers across the decades. ~ James Chrispell & Bruce Eder, All Music Guide