Stylistics - That Same Way (2011)

Stylistics

The_Stylistics_That_Same_Way.jpg

Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Though they haven't had a chart hit in 30 years, the Stylistics continue to be, for many, the personification of sweet soul music. Their early 70s work with producer Thom Bell yielded some of the most popular love songs of that era -- songs that continue to have an audience in 2011.  But the Stylistics are hardly thought of as a modern recording group, so it may be surprising for their legion of fans to find the group now releasing That Same Way, their first album of new material this century.  And it is even more surprising that this quietly issued disc is the quartet's finest release since their halcyon days of three decades ago.

Though they haven't had a chart hit in 30 years, the Stylistics continue to be, for many, the personification of sweet soul music. Their early 70s work with producer Thom Bell yielded some of the most popular love songs of that era -- songs that continue to have an audience in 2011.  But the Stylistics are hardly thought of as a modern recording group, so it may be surprising for their legion of fans to find the group now releasing That Same Way, their first album of new material this century.  And it is even more surprising that this quietly issued disc is the quartet's finest release since their halcyon days of three decades ago.

Recorded in 2008, That Same Way is the teaming of the legendary group with producer/songwriter Preston Glass, who has spent most of the past two decades working on new projects by classic soul acts ranging from Ali Woodson to Freda Payne.  And while the results of his work over that time have been quite uneven - often due to overuse of synthesizers and dated instrumentation that smell of low budget - on That Same Way he brings his A-game, providing full-bodied arrangements that feature a solid band and even a full string section.

It's clear from the first note that this release is an unofficial tribute to the Stylistics' seminal collaborations with Thom Bell, and Glass's production follows the Bell playbook reverentially.  There are even two Bell compositions included, the obscure Derek & Cindy song "You Bring Out the Best In Me" and a remake of the Stylistics' own hit, "Ebony Eyes."  But most of the cuts are retro-sounding ballads written by Glass alone or with such notable accomplices as Maurice White (Earth Wind & Fire) and Larry Graham. And while a cynic might roll his eyes at the obvious attempt of That Same Way to mimic the sound of Bell's historic work, the presence of the Stylistics and Glass's solid batch of songs together make the plan work. 

Now the answer to the obvious question: The quartet, consisting of founding members Airrion Love and Herb Murrell and newer additions Van Fields and Eban Brown, sounds absolutely solid. Unlike many Stylistics albums, on That Same Way each member gets a share of the leads; but of course the laboring oar largely falls on the falsetto of Brown, who replaced legendary vocalist Russell Thompkins Jr. a decade ago.  Brown handles the plentiful leads competently, though his falsetto is thicker and lacks some of the unique sweetness of Thompkins' best work.

As could be expected, Bell's "You Bring Out The Best In Me" is the standout cut and a reminder of the simply beautiful compositions that he and his songwriting partner, Linda Creed, wrote in the early 70s.  But there are also plenty of notable new love songs here, including "Over Getting Over You," "I Just Wanna Know You," the title track and the dramatic "Painted on the Sky."  And the disc works just as well when it goes slightly more upbeat, such as on the two stepper songs, "False Alarm" and "Born to Step Together" as well as the enjoyable "Easy Loving You." 

Even after their hit days were done, every release made by the Stylistics in the 80s and 90s had something to recommend. They were a group of men who knew themselves and their fans, and they never fell into the trap of awkwardly reinventing their style to sound "street." They were balladeers who largely connected with women (and the men who loved those women), and each disc featured at least a couple memorable ballads.  With That Same Way they go one step further, delivering their most consistently enjoyable album since their early 80s Philadelphia International work.  And in the process they pull off another surprise, too: providing a loving look back to sweet soul music's heyday in a way that sounds absolutely right in 2011. Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

[Editor's Note: "That Same Way" will be the SoulTracks CD of the Month for May]

 
Listening Room - Lizz Wright - Grace
Choice Cut - Toni Redd - "Take Me To Paradise"
Song of the Month - Phillip Brandon - "Come On"
CD of the Month - Najee - Poetry In Motion

Leave a comment!