Smokey Robinson - Smokey and Friends (2014)

Smokey Robinson
smokey-friends.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Everything about the new Smokey Robinson album, Smokey and Friends, warned me to have low expectations.  There have been too many similar albums that have shown the formula -- the pairing of a musical legend with younger singers on duet remakes of that artist's biggest songs -- is more about flash than music. However, I nonetheless had hope because, after all, this is Smokey Robinson. But history rarely lies; it has shown that it is best not to think about an album like Smokey and Friends as a meaningful musical event. It is best to think it in the way you would think about the covers band at your cousin's wedding: you'll know all the words to the songs, everything will hopefully be in tune, and it will all sound better if you're drinking.

Everything about the new Smokey Robinson album, Smokey and Friends, warned me to have low expectations.  There have been too many similar albums that have shown the formula -- the pairing of a musical legend with younger singers on duet remakes of that artist's biggest songs -- is more about flash than music. However, I nonetheless had hope because, after all, this is Smokey Robinson. But history rarely lies; it has shown that it is best not to think about an album like Smokey and Friends as a meaningful musical event. It is best to think it in the way you would think about the covers band at your cousin's wedding: you'll know all the words to the songs, everything will hopefully be in tune, and it will all sound better if you're drinking.

The whole experience will be far less satisfying for those who create expectations by thinking too much: that means people who mentally combine a legend like Smokey Robinson with an enviable all-star cast of collaborators and expect 1+1 to equal more than 1.  As it was with previous duets projects by such transcendant artists as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Smokey and Friends isn't about creative song interpretation or artistic ambition. It is instead like one of those 70s music infomercials: a trifling engagement that transparently uses nostalgia to create commerce.  And the venerable Mr. Robinson, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century, takes no chances on breaking that nostalgia, instead delivering -- with producer Randy Jackson -- eleven tracks that so generically mimic the original versions that the disc should have a white cover and the word "Acme" on it.

Friends leads off with a straight-ahead duet with Elton John (whose deep voice is virtually unrecognizable) on "Tracks of My Tears," before delivering its most inspired moment: Steven Tyler gives some over-the-top grit to the mildly driving blues-rock cover of "You Really Got a Hold On Me," providing one of the few spontaneous moments on the disc and giving a hint of where this album could have gone with a looser script. A couple songs later, after a rather awkward spoken interlude, John Legend and Smokey cozy up nicely on an updated "Quiet Storm."  Similarly, Mary J. Blige gives her earnest best to "Being With You," overcoming a by-the-numbers backing track.

Unfortunately, those few high points are far outweighed by the tepid remainder.  Such vocal talents as Aloe Blacc, Miguel and Ledisi can't rescue the tired numbers to which they've been assigned, and the visiting adult contemporary stars fare even worse: The mildly country-flavored "Ain't That Peculiar" with James Taylor is a flat out miss, and Sheryl Crow is so nondescript as a songmate on "Tears of a Clown" that you half expect she was texting a friend while recording. In their defense, these singers, all of whom have established their creds elsewhere, are here chained to Jackson's wooden, uninspired production that leaves little room for them to shine.

Maybe the biggest challenge for an album like Smokey and Friends is that it is tough to provide anything surprising or fresh when covering such a well worn set of songs. These were Smokey's biggest hits and they've all been remade dozens (some hundreds) of times. However, it would have been nice if there was at least an attempt to freshen them up a bit, as Lionel Richie did with his own catalog on his countrified duets album, Tuskegee. Unfortunately, there are few creative twists here, just inauspicious, note for note replicas of past hits that do neither the legendary compositions nor the imported talent much justice.

Smokey Robinson has accomplished enough over his career to earn a free pass, and he uses it in full on Smokey and Friends. Many fans and critics, burned by similar past collaboration albums, rolled their eyes when the recording of the album was announced earlier this year, and there is little here that will make them regret their cynicism. Despite its star power and lineage, Smokey and Friends is a missed opportunity, a not-so-novel idea not-so-well executed. And while it is always great to listen to the legendary Mr. Robinson -- he is in decent voice here -- all these songs have been heard too many times on recordings far better than these, leaving Smokey and Friends as the most fleeting of larks: a mildly entertaining wisp of a disc that will be forgotten almost as quickly as it arrived. 

By Chris Rizik

 
Choice Cut - Maysa - "Lovin' You Is Easy"
Song of the Month - Aya Ito - "Don't Take My Life"

Leave a comment!