It's tough being a popular artist over the age of fifty. Arguably the greatest generation of rock, pop and soul has been stuck in a changing musical world, still revered for the music of three decades ago but unable to get airplay, or even acknowledgement, of its current output. So artists from Rod Stewart to Hall & Oates to Jeffrey Osborne have been stuck with a choice: continue to write and record new music to increasingly small, niche audiences, or follow the "smooth jazz" blueprint by releasing albums of popular remakes, hoping that the combination of a known artist and well written, familiar tunes will strike gold. It is a formula that appeared to have some legs ten years ago, but it has long since worn out its welcome with all but the most casual music listeners.
The biggest challenge for an artist recording an album of new versions of pop or soul standards is to make each remake distinctive, able to stand on its own when inevitably compared to the uberpopular original. Michael McDonald proved to be one of the few to pull it off, scoring a well-deserved career resuscitation in 2003 with Motown. His unique, expressive baritone, combined with Simon Climie's crisp, efficient production, resulted in a disc that was among the best of its ilk and exposed a new generation of listeners to one of the most gifted, distinctive voices of the his generation.
With the success of Motown, a Motown 2 was inevitable and, even if it the idea seemed a bit more contrived by 2005, managed to go gold. So last year McDonald was left to decide whether to go to the remakes well one more time -- assured of moving a few hundred thousand CDs -- or release his first album of original compositions since 1997's brilliant but tragically ignored Blue Obsession. What he's done with Soul Speak is find a middle ground, recording enough safe bet remakes to satisfy those who are eagerly awaiting the 6th installment of Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series, and enough original songs and eclectic covers to please both critics and his most loyal fans.
If radio picks up anything from Soul Speak, it'll probably be one of the disc's obvious cuts, such as Stevie's "For Once In My Life," Dionne's "Walk On By," Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" or the solid cover of Aretha's latter day hit, "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)." But radio will be missing is the real heart of Soul Speak, a terrific combination of intelligent new compositions and inspired outside choices.
That a new composition like "Still Not Over You (Getting Over Me)," with Climie's retro arrangement, fits in beautifully between the Stevie and Dionne classics, is demonstration of McDonald's continued talent as a songwriter. And nearly as strong are his other new cuts, the bluesy "Only God Can Help Me Now" and the disc's lone rock cut, "Enemy Within." And rather than filling the rest of the disc with tired covers of Gamble & Huff or Holland/Dozier/Holland songs -- many of which stretch McDonald's range to an uncomfortable yell -- he has wisely opted for unusual, less-known cover choices such as Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," and the Eddy Arnold country classic "You Don't Know Me," all of which not only have a freshness in their obscurity, but also work beautifully with his gruff baritone.
Perhaps the high point on the album is a Gospel-influenced, five minute take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," a long-ignored gem that has now been given memorable treatment twice in the past year (by McDonald and by Maya Azucena, with versions so different that they are essentially different songs). McDonald's dramatic, churchy approach is perfect, wringing every element of emotion out of Cohen's painful lyrics and haunting refrain.
From a popular media standpoint, Soul Speak completes Michael McDonald's trilogy of classic soul tributes. But, more importantly, it begins an important ten year step back, reminding listeners that McDonald is more than a song stylist, he's a songwriter who created some of the most soulful rock songs of the 80s and who continues to have something important to say in the fourth decade of his career. Recommended.
By Chris Rizik