Boyz II Men - Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA (2007)

Boyz II Men
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From the opening bars of their dreamy rendition of the Temptations classic, "Just My Imagination", I take one long, delicious exhale: the Boyz are back. These aren't the Boyz of recent years, you know, the ones whose recordings were riddled with underwhelming whines and chalkboard scrapping productions. On their Decca debut, Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA, here at last are the Boyz whose creamy harmonies catapulted them to five #1s, three record-breaking chart busters and a reported 60 million albums sold worldwide.

With Randy Jackson and Brian McKnight at the production helm, glorious live instrumentation courtesy of such acclaimed musicians as Larry Gold, Luis Conte, Vinnie Colauita, Kenneth Crouch and the Dap Kings, track after track is lifted from the mundane ProTools filler that passes for quality music.

From the opening bars of their dreamy rendition of the Temptations classic, "Just My Imagination", I take one long, delicious exhale: the Boyz are back. These aren't the Boyz of recent years, you know, the ones whose recordings were riddled with underwhelming whines and chalkboard scrapping productions. On their Decca debut, Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA, here at last are the Boyz whose creamy harmonies catapulted them to five #1s, three record-breaking chart busters and a reported 60 million albums sold worldwide.

With Randy Jackson and Brian McKnight at the production helm, glorious live instrumentation courtesy of such acclaimed musicians as Larry Gold, Luis Conte, Vinnie Colauita, Kenneth Crouch and the Dap Kings, track after track is lifted from the mundane ProTools filler that passes for quality music. Deft arrangements remind listeners why the Boyz are icons and why such classics as Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford's "Money (That's What I Want)" are not mere commercial jingles but valuable slices of Americana (in both lyrical intention and political meaning). The set isn't perfect and suicide is contemplated when offered another veteran set of covers for review (I'll have an order of original music with a side of fresh lyrics please, to go!). Still, after so many dismal disappointments this album hits the ear like a well-deserved mea culpa to fans who've taken to tracing the tracks of their own tears over the missing Boyz II Men. What a return!

The song choices for Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA, their-"cough"-second covers album in five years, are better suited to their virtuoso vocal styling than the 70's and 80's tunes that landed flat with their Koch recording, Throwback. This mostly 60's and early 70's pop set were written for a lively, robust and highly tumultuous period in America's history and Boyz, for the most part, embraces the energy of the period without the bleary eyed nostalgia of Barry Manilow's take on these same eras. On the up-tempo cuts, their alternating sensitivities and aggressions bleed through the Boyz energetic vocal acrobatics, capturing the hope, vulnerability, and even erratic exuberance of a generation. The song chronology descends from the unsustainable ideals of LBJ and Kennedy to the melancholic hangover of the initial post-Reagan era. Commendably, the Boyz approach to this rich material follows suit as disruptive, socially conscious jams yield to moody, resigned ballads about those romantic circumstances that were more in our immediate control.

It's a delight to hear Wanya, Shawn and Nathan, men best known for their crooning ballads, dazzlingly work their way around songs that require them to ride a rousing tempo and not let go. Not only do they hold tight, they manage to find small pockets for invention within familiar tunes to make them their own. Levi Stubbs would smile approvingly at their jumping, jiving medley of the Four Tops "It's The Same Ol' Song/Reach Out I'll Be There." Stevie is certainly grinning at the rock-bottom yearning that the Boyz achieve in "I Was Made To Love Her," with nary a high note missed. Some may take issue with the trio's pseudo-psychedelic interpretation of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield's "War."  I, however, was surprised at how strongly they attacked the melody and restored the funk to a song that had disintegrated from powerful political propaganda to Chris Tucker film fodder. They really go to the guts of every back-beat heavy track and come out with what I imagine will be some of their best new concert material ever.

Syrup is a staple in the Boyz catalog, so it's not surprising that there is some thickening maple that slows things down a bit on this project. Let me say upfront that the singing throughout the slow and mid-tempo joints is always superb; the cut's weakness sometimes lies in an occasional failure to capture the pathos of the particular tune. There is a smile in the brightness of the Boyz Las Vegas style delivery that belies the intentions of Marvin's contemplative "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," only the gothic ending seems mindful of song's meaning. Similarly, the current single, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears," has more joy than tears pouring from this cloud puff arrangement. Eddie Kendricks' Temptations swan song, "Just My Imagination," does justice to Kendricks' portion but short shifts the heft of Paul Williams' exploding baritone lines at the bridge (this, despite an astonishing drum rolling build that set it up so nicely for a slumbering Wanya). The moment on "Just..." is rescued a couple of bars later by a new doo-wop break in the song, reclaiming this gem for Boyz. 

On their two accapella offerings, the Boyz spare, straight ahead rendering of their own Motown classic, "End of the Road", avoids its sticky origins for music that lovingly floats into the ether. It is their doo-wop version of "Ribbon of the Sky" that stunningly reinvents an oft-covered song into something that could have received high rotation in the golden radio days of the Four Freshman or The Flamingoes. "Easy" is smooth and, well, easy. The Jackson 5's "Got To Be There" is brought down an octave and still impresses through some understated, intricacies on background vocals. Patti LaBelle, though I love her, brings nothing worthy but wails to "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," but then again neither does Wanya; it's the background work that again does the heavy lifting. None of the ballads offend and there is always a saving grace through inventive details that sponsors plenty of smiles, if not deserved applause. Notably on these tracks, someone in Boyz either learned how to sing a credible bass or they got a bass for hire, returning the trio to the layered quartet complexities that made them great, if only on these recordings.

Throughout the nineties, Boyz II Men were the undeniable heir apparent for all the big Motown groups that defined a memorable musical age. Its right that they should not only take their place among the greats in this musical tribute to Motown, but be in a musical dialogue with these soul pop Gods. That Boyz II Men should place such an intimate dialogue with those masters on digital for our listening pleasure may finally earn them an accolade that has recently eluded this decorated act: cherished.  Recommended.            

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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