Lionel Richie's "You Are" was playing when I met my wife, so he'll always hold a special place on my iPod. But his three decade post-Commodores solo career has also been, for me, the source of conflicting emotions. There's never been a question of his talent, only of his judgment. While Richie has provided an abundance of memorable tunes and moments of brilliance, he has too often taken a path of least resistance. Like a politician before a general election, Richie has always gravitated toward the middle, sanding down the edges of his music to find as broad an audience as possible at every moment. Consequently, while his early Commodores days were filled with a balance of soulful ballads and real funk, over time his sound smoothed out until it represented the mildest of popular music, with ersatz soul, ersatz funk and lots and lots of soft, harmless ballads.
So it was with much trepidation that I approached Richie's highly hyped new project, Tuskegee. It screamed "gimmick" in the worst sense of the word, with Richie remaking many of his biggest hits in a duet format with country music stars. But as with those cat and laughing baby videos on YouTube, despite my trepidation I felt compelled to check out Tuskegee, perhaps only to find out how much of a train wreck it would be. My surprising conclusion: Tuskegee is far better than it has any right to be and will likely be happily welcomed by Richie's sizeable international audience.
Tuskegee is "country" in the same way that Urkel is "cool" when he becomes Stefan Urkelle or the way my accountant uncle is a Hell's Angel when he rides a Harley. In other words, you simply add the trappings of that to which you aspire -- here, a steel pedal guitar and some close harmonies -- and declare victory. But despite the quintessential country touches, this album is as close to adult pop as anything Richie's done in his 40 year career. And, once you get past the pretense, that's nothing to apologize about. Lionel Richie has as keen a sense of melody as any popular composer of his generation and he is almost incapable of making music that is less than listenable, even if it is occasionally uninspired. And it is that upbeat sense of melody that makes Tuskegee generally a success.
Whenever an artist creates an album that remakes his prior hits, there is an unavoidable measuring stick that compares the new versions with popular original cuts, and that is where Tuskegee outperforms expectations. Modern production and instrumentation spices up much of the album, in some cases resulting in songs that actually surpass the originals: "Dancing On the Ceiling," Richie's jump-the-shark dance song of the mid-80s, gets a surprisingly enjoyable new life as an upbeat Southern rocker with the help of Rascal Flatts. Similarly, the mid-2000s cut "Just For You" is beefed up with the help of Billy Currington. And Richie's treacly breakout song from 1981, "Endless Love," is quite enjoyable with new duet partner Shania Twain and a more muscular arrangement. Richie apologists have been quick to point out that he had a several country-influenced songs in his discography, and a number of them are reprised here in relatively strong fashion, including "Stuck On You" (with Darius Rucker), "Deep River Woman" (with Little Big Town") and "Sail On" (with Tim McGraw) -- though only "Stuck On You" adds much to the original version.
As expected, some other songs on Tuskegee would have been better left alone. Richie's gentle "Hello" is the most obvious, with Richie and the overpowering Jennifer Nettles approaching the song so differently that they sound like they were on different planets when they recorded their parts (where's the blind sculpter girl when you need her?). Less perplexing but also less interesting are the remake of "Lady" with Kenny Rogers, the DOA "All Night Long" with Jimmy Buffett and a duet with Willie Nelson on "Easy" (complete with forlorn harmonica and mandolin) that can't seem to decide if it is a 70s pop number or the backing track from a Spaghetti Western.
Maybe its because I came in with low expectations, or maybe its because Lionel Richie is, in many ways, the ultimate audience-pleasing performer, but overall I found Tuskegee to be a pretty enjoyable listen. Richie is able to freshen a batch of long-cataloged songs with a 21st century sheen and an A-List of crossover country co-stars who are working hard and with no perceptable sense of irony. It still has a bit of a novelty feel, and I doubt we'll all be listening to a trifle like Tuskegee two years from now, but for today I'll settle for this batch of well produced, earnest performances of songs most of us grew up with. Recommended.
By Chris Rizik