Tuesday, October 15

Anthology captures Smokey Robinson at his best


Anthology captures Smokey Robinson at his best

Motown’s Jackson, Gladys Knight selections limited

By Michael Tatum

Daily Bruin Senior Staff

The first thing that strikes you about Smokey Robinson is his
voice. A breathy, almost ethereal falsetto, it serves as the
perfect vehicle for his persona: the perpetual head over heels in
love adolescent, delicate, long-suffering and shamelessly
romantic.

Nowhere is that persona better documented than on Motown’s new
two-CD Anthology: The Best of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the
latest installment in a projected year-long reissue campaign from
the legendary record label. In addition, Motown has simultaneously
released two similar sets for Michael Jackson and Gladys Knight and
the Pips, with Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and others
forthcoming.

The reissues are essentially refurbished versions of Motown’s
same titled series from the ’70s, with crucial improvements. The
original packages, which were hastily transferred to CD in the
mid-’80s, were shoddily packaged and remastered, with tacky yellow
and gray cover art, skimpy liner notes, and audio that sounded like
the originals were recorded in a bucket.

Now of course, consumers expect quality for their money,
particularly when they have to shell out $25 to $30 for the
product. All of the renovated titles have discarded the old
packaging in favor of beautiful full color artwork, newly penned
liner notes, slimline double-CD jewel boxes (much less bulky than
"clamshell" boxes), and cardboard slip cases. The crisp sound is
revelatory.

But no matter how good these packages might look on your coffee
table, what counts most is the music, and here Motown runs into
trouble. One of the failures of their recent box sets for Robinson
and the Temptations was excess: going back to find the original
tapes for the new CDs led to discovering long lost songs and
alternate takes.

While the inclusion of these might titillate collectors of
justly lost B-sides and fanatics who find merit in the barely
discernible nuances of unreleased mixes, they don’t make for good
consistent compilations.

As a result, of the three new Anthologies, only the Robinson
best represents its respective artist. The track lineup duplicates
and expands that of its predecessor, with perfect singles like "The
Tracks of My Tears" and "I Second That Emotion" showcasing
Robinson’s gift for crafty wordplay and clever rhymes.

The choice of extra tracks is dubious in spots: the previously
unreleased "My Heart Says Yes" with (Claudette Robinson, at that
time Smokey Robinson’s wife, on vocals) and the maudlin "A Love
That Can Never Be" (droned by Ronnie White) prove once more that
backup singers should stick to harmonies.

Plenty of songs that made their first CD appearance on the box
set would have been far more choice: the bouncy "Happy Landing,"
(an obscure album track) or the soaring "Come Spy With Me" (the
title track to a long-lost movie). And what about the galvanic #1
hit "Love Machine," recorded after Smokey left the Miracles for a
solo career?

For the most part however, the new Smokey Robinson anthology
goes some distance to fill in the gaping holes of its forerunner,
particularly on disc one, where several key early songs (like
"Ain’t It Baby" and "Mighty Good Lovin") are restored. From start
to finish, this two-CD set is nearly perfect.

In contrast, the Michael Jackson anthology is unfathomable: only
five songs from his tenure with the Jackson 5, and not one of them
is "ABC" or "The Love You Save." And there’s not much you can do
with nearly a whole side of superfluous remixes, not to mention
bathetic songs about pet rats.

And when his handlers gave him ballads to sing, Jackson simply
didn’t yet have either the vocal powers or the emotional experience
to effectively convey them. Best to hold out for the oft delayed
Epic anthology HISstory, which will cover Jackson’s triumphant work
from the ’80s.

A minor artist she may be, but Gladys Knight deserves her
compilation. Blessed with neither interpretive gifts or a
distinctive voice, she’s nevertheless an energetic entertainer and
grand popularizer in the tradition of Linda Ronstadt, though since
she was a Motown artist her work is far more satisfying than that
comparison implies.

But while her underrated original version of "I Heard It Through
the Grapevine" stomps all over Marvin Gaye’s better known remake,
too many of the best songs here have been done better by other
people, when they haven’t been re-recorded to death to begin with.
Pray for a truncated version.

The series will continue in May, with the release of anthologies
from the Temptations and Rare Earth.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.