Friday, December 18, 2009

Some Motown, Reconsidered

Like all pop music labels of the day, Motown was one predicated on the success of its singles. Albums were an afterthought, especially in the early and mid-sixties. Pick-up a Motown album from that era and you’ll find a featured single or two and lots of covers—usually of songs published by Berry Gordy, Jr.

Gordy was a businessman first and foremost, and he knew the real money in the music biz lay in publishing. It was nice to pick-up some cash from Martha & the Vandellas “Heat Wave”, but it was even nicer when the Supremes and Mary Wells recorded it and put it on their albums, too.

Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye eventually ushered Motown into the album age four years after Sgt. Pepper. Gaye’s 1971 classic What’s Going On and Wonder’s 1973 landmark Innervisions aligned Motown with the album-buying preferences of seventies consumers.

But even in the golden age of the hit single, a handful of worthy Motown albums were made. If you’re of a mind to, you will find these well-worth seeking out:

1.) The Temptations – The Temptin’ Temptations (1965) Unlike so many Motown albums of its era, there isn’t a cover—or a weak song—in the bunch. While none of the Temp’s best-remembered chart-toppers are on board, many of their most sublime are. "Since I Lost My Baby" is epic heartbreak. "Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)" and "I’ll Be in Trouble" are just the sort of song craft Motown tossed-off so effortlessly in its prime. And "Don’t Look Back"'s understated groove sneaks up on you like a Crown Royal buzz. Which come to think of it, pretty much describes the entire album.

2.) The Four Tops – The Four Tops Second Album (1965) Levi Stubbs might have had the most recognizable voice at Motown. When he leaned into a lyric, it didn’t matter what kind of radio you were listening to it on. Everything he sang was instantly rendered into 70mm CinemaScope. Second Album sustained the career momentum begun with "Baby I Need Your Loving", providing the Tops with top five hits in "I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" and "It’s the Same Old Song". Songs like "Something about You" and "Helpless" come off the bench and elevate Second Album to minor classic status.

3.) Martha & the Vandellas – Dance Party (1965) Unlike label-mate Diana Ross, lead Vandella Martha Reeves wasn’t afraid to sweat—at least as much as image-conscious Motown would allow. Dance Party features the anthemic "Dancing in the Street" (check out the clarion call of that brass intro) and perhaps their second-greatest hit, the pulsing "Nowhere to Run". That it also contains the unappreciated proto funk of "Mobile Lil the Dancing Witch" is just a bonus. Not for the caffeine averse.

4.) The Temptations – Wish It Would Rain (1968) Anchored by another masterful Temps hit, Wish It Would Rain mirrors The Temptin’ Temptations in its array of ache and ecstasy. While the Supremes were Berry Gordy’s pet project, judging from the A-list material on Wish It Would Rain, the Temps were everyone else’s. There isn’t a ‘skip track’ in the bunch; just the sound of a band at their zenith, moving from strength to strength. Sadly, this was also beginning of the end. David Ruffin left during its recording after being refused his request to rename the band David Ruffin and the Temptations.

5.) Stevie Wonder – Signed, Sealed & Delivered (1970) Lost in the attention and the grammys awarded his later work was the fact that Stevie Wonder was an uncommonly gifted singer, player and arranger well before he released Talking Book. And here’s the proof. This is stuffed with resonant performances like "Never Had a Dream Come True", "Heaven Help Us All" and "Don’t Wonder Why". And when combined with the bracing strut of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)", it becomes a must-have. In more-fashionable words, this is Stevie on the verge of blowing up.

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