After 40 years at Motown - interrupted only by a short stint at Atlantic Records in the late 70s - the Temptations have left the label for its newly formed Universal sister company, New Door Records. So it is ironic that the group's first release on New Door is Reflections, a fifteen song collection of covers of some of Motown's greatest songs. Motown fans remember that during the label's heyday, albums of top artists surrounded hits with "filler" covers of other Motown hits, often with the same backing tracks. So the idea of Reflections is a pretty natural one, though somewhat risky. It's one thing to throw in some covers as filler; it is another to base a whole album on them - though no doubt Michael McDonald's recent success set the stage for this effort. But the biggest risk with covering Motown hits is that they are legendary for their impeccable production and performances - so you'd better be clever and provide something new and different to the mix. In that respect, Re
flections is half a success.
The Temptations themselves sound uniformly wonderful throughout the disc. Lead singer G.C. Cameron reminds us that he is one of the most underrated soul singers of his generation, and the vocal performances of Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Joe Herndon and Otis are strong. No, the dividing line here comes from the album's two producers (hot young producer Steve "The Scotsman" Harvey (Donnie, Frank McComb) and the legendary Benjamin Wright) and their different visions of what Reflections should be. Surprisingly it is the veteran Wright who unfortunately goes inorganic, largely foregoing a band in favor of electronics and programmed instruments. The gamble doesn't work, as the lack of real instruments gives the songs a mechanical, cheap feel. It also drains much of the warmth from the fine vocal performances, especially destroying Ron Tyson's version of "Ooh Baby Baby".
It is the relative youngster Harvey who saves the day, using tight band (including full horn section) and warm arrangements to bring something new to each of the eight songs on which he works. The choice of three Supremes covers, "Reflections," "I Hear a Symphony" and the album's closer, "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand," is inspired, and hearing these classics from a male perspective gives them new life. And Harvey smartly subdues the arrangements and puts the vocals out front on the wonderful cover of Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of a Broken Hearted." But best of all is the leadoff cut, "Can I Get A Witness," a terrific, full Gospel reworking of the Marvin Gaye classic that takes the lyrics at their face value and allows Cameron the chance to preach, growl and preside over his soulful congregation.
It's always great to hear the Temptations and the uniformly high-quality vocal performances they provide, well in their fifth decade of recording. And even at its worst, Reflections is listenable because of those performances. But when Steve Harvey's at the helm, the album really shines and brings something fresh and very enjoyable to a classic catalog.
By Chris Rizik