Back in 1979, disco ruled, and those urban artists who didn't jump on the train got run over. As hotter dance sounds commandeered popular radio, sweet soul groups like the Stylistics suddenly found themselves without an audience for their albums. But not the Manhattans. Once they hit in 1976-7 with slow jam smashes like "Kiss and Say Goodbye" and the brilliant "We Never Danced to a Love Song," they established for themselves the kind of urbane, grown up audience that would become the basis a few years later for Urban Adult Contemporary radio, and they chugged alongside the disco train on their own separate track, consciously defying what the music industry said they needed to do.
The new Expansion Records reissue of two Manhattans discs from 1979 and 1981, Love Talk and Black Tie, provides a good glimpse of what was best about the Manhattans during this period as well as the genesis of an unfortunately blander, less interesting direction that they followed in the 80s. These two discs bookended a pivotal album for the group, 1980's After Midnight, on which the group abandoned its Philly/New York music base to sign on with Chicago-based producer Leo Graham (Champaign, Tyrone Davis). After Midnight was a mediocre album, but included a monster hit with "Shining Star," and that success solidified Graham as the group's lead producer and signaled a move to a less interesting, more tightly scripted Manhattans sound for the next half decade.
Black Tie was the group's second album with Graham, and it clearly bears his imprint. A fine songwriter who usually brought strong material to his albums, Graham was, however, the production equivalent of a Swiss clock: absolutely precise but with no room for spontaneity. On Black Tie Graham provided his usual top notch, slow material like "Deep Water," "Just One Moment Away" and the moderate hit, "Honey Honey," but his "in the box" production virtually handcuffed lead singer Gerald Alston throughout, removing Alston's ad-libs and smoothing his expressive voice into an uncomfortable Billy Eckstine-like honey -- making one of the great singers of that era occasionally sound...well...boring. Alston has always been best when improvising and making runs, but Black Tie keeps the lid tight on his performance. Surprisingly, the album still works pretty well on occasion, such as the great compositions "Honey Honey," the ballad "When You See Me Laughing" and closing number, "When I Leave Tomorrow." Unfortunately, most of the rest has the passion of a Lawrence Welk concert, dragging down Alston, Blue Lovett and crew into bland territory that their earlier releases never approached.
It is ironic that Black Tie is teamed here with Love Talk, a long forgotten disc that was the Manhattans' last Philly album and which may be the group's best; importantly, the aura of Love Talk could not be more different than its companion album. More than any other Manhattans release, Love Talk sounds like a session where the group is having fun, best exemplified on two great, piano-and-drum-driven fast cuts, "New York City" and the title track, as enjoyable for the group's back and forth banter as for the music. Producers Jack Faith and Bert DeCoteaux and the Philadelphia-based crew brought a bunch of great songs (supplemented by a couple Blue Lovett compositions), and let the group just go at it, with Alston running like a free stallion. Consequently, everything on the album shines. In addition to the joyous fast cuts, "After You" rings as a terrific pop/soul ballad, "Devil In the Dark" comes off as downright sexy and "Here Comes The Hurt Again" introduces surprising country-flavored harmonies that work so well that they make it one of the Manhattans' all-time best songs.
Congratulations to Expansion Records for rescuing Love Talk from record company vault hell. It alone is worth the price of admission here, and there are enough good spots on the uneven Black Tie to make it a bonus. For longtime Manhattans fans, this reissue should be cause for celebration: some of the best music by one of the great 70s R&B groups graces us again more than three decades after its relatively short run in print. Love Talk was a counter-industry gamble in discofied 1979, and it sounds just as exquisitely counter-cultural in the auto-tune filled, electronic dance world of 2010. And that's just fine with me. Highly Recommended.
By Chris Rizik