Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing

...oh how true Ashford & Simpson in your infinite wisdom.

This past Tuesday, Boyz II Men released the album Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA. This is the first non-greatest hits album released to my knowledge by the group since 1997's Evolution. Yet, upon a quick scan on, the men have released no less than five such CDs. Shows how much I keep up.

The disc features 13 Motown hits, running--chronologically--from Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" to an acapella version of "End of the Road"--yes, their own early 90s chart-topper. An album such as this almost seems inevitable. Of all the R&B groups that emerged during that late 80s-early 90s period, it seemed as if Boyz II Men were the most sophisticated, the most polished of the lot. More than Jodeci, Silk, Blackstreet, Shai and the like--among whom they were one of the first and perhaps most influential--Boyz II Men felt the most throwback (also a title of one of their previous albums), the one most closely-linked to those old 60s Motown groups.

What's sad, then, is that this collection of previous Motown hits captures neither what's great about the previous Boyz II Men records nor what's great about those old Hitsville records. The album was produced by the group (now a threesome by the way, without bass singer Michael) and Randy Jackson. No, not the sixth and youngest Jackson brother and, yes, one-third of the "American Idol" judging panel. And that's what some of these songs sound like: reunion night on "American Idol"; or the final performance for a really good senior-class glee club.

The problem with an album subtitled A Journey Through Hitsville USA is that the music doesn't work unless you actually journey through Hitsville USA. And part of that musical journey is through the musicians themselves. It's easy to remember the artists (and to some extent the writers and producers), but it's the musicians, known as The Funk Brothers that have as large a claim to what we affectionately refer to as the "Motown sound" as anyone else. Paul Justman's excellent documentary on the Funk Brothers, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, goes into more depth on their influence than I can here.

But more than that, the accompanying concert that is intercut with the archival footage and talking heads in the movie shows how much the quality of the record can change simply by who's actually playing on them. Artists who sang in this concert such as Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan, Me'shell Ndegeocello, and Ben Harper are not at all better singers (though not necessarily worse either) in my opinion than Boyz II Men, but the songs are somehow more effective. They have more of a groove; are performed with more passion. The songs on Motown sound bland, soulless, like a bunch of studio musicians hired to simply back up a vocal group and do nothing else. Unfortunately, that's what they achieved.

The opening track, "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" by the Temptations is the lone truly solid song on the album. Of all the great Motown guy groups, it was the Temptations the Boyz reminded me of most and the latter's performance here of one of the former's best songs holds up well to the comparison. But most of the remaining songs either succeed marginally or fail miserably. Political fare like Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and more notably Edwin Starr's "War" lack the sense of personal urgency, the feeling of a social call to arms the original records possessed. Others, such as The Jackson 5's "Got To Be There" and Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky" sound vocally tame, as if the guys are holding back. "Got To Be There" is in my opinion little Michael's most vocally impressive performance in the days with his brothers, displaying a vocal range really only hinted at in some of their other records. But in the cover, Shawn's falsetto turns it into a soft lullaby. It's nice, it's sweet, I guess, but nowhere near as powerful.

Not that Boyz II Men can't do great covers. Remember "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday" or, better yet, The Five Satin's "In the Still of the Nite"? Part of me hates writing a review like this because the group was such a big part of my musical life growing up and to a point re-introduced to me the old great Motown music that's as important to me as the Beatles and Clapton are now. But this effort pales in comparison to the legacy they've created and the legacy their acknowledging.

At least we can reminisce a little, can't we?....

Saturday, November 3, 2007

These vagabond shoes...

So I was watching a DVD from season one of the NBC show "30 Rock" and was noticing something that always tends to grab my attention when it happens. See, "30 Rock" takes place in New York City, a city that hosts more than its share of film productions. And while larger film productions, especially in Hollywood and elsewhere block off streets or shoot in studios to control the crowd and other extraneous factors, many films and television shows set and shot in Manhattan just simply and quietly shoot out on the street, not really thinking to block out any of the space that will appear in front of the camera.

The result is a sort of guerilla style environment in which anything can happen. One of these things is the curious side-effect of innocent bystanders, random passers-by, looking directly into the camera or stopping what their doing and just observing the actors performing their scene. More often than not, these are native New Yorkers who are fairly familiar with the practice of filming on public streets and once they're done with their initial fleeting interest, merely keep going on with their normal routine. But every time I am watching a scene that does take place out in the city streets, I find myself looking for this to happen, expecting it to come at every turn, and it actually draws my attention away from the actors and the dialogue.

It's quite a funny irony I think. One obvious assumption one could draw from this practice of filmmakers shooting on the streets is authenticity. Many in the filmmaking community, especially in NYC, always complain about productions taking place in Toronto--even though the movie itself is set in New York--as a way of cutting costs. Actually shooting in New York gives it credibility and a more documentary-like feel. But here's the rub... rather than strengthening my suspension of disbelief, the physical location, actually serves to reify my engagement with the screen, turning my passivity into active viewership. It's oddly Brechtian, without for one instant being purposefully so. This quest for realism then highlights its own theatricality.

But back to "30 Rock." How great are Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan? The show won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series this year and, as much as I love the writing and the rest of the cast, I really think it's these two that make the show soar. Morgan's essentially doing the same thing he's always done, from his standup to SNL to his work in other shows, but here it's somehow funnier. His humor is so broad, not necessarily physically (although that too), but in its structure. It's kaleidoscopic in a way, shifting and morphing until it reaches such an absurd level, you can't possibly figure out where it's going. Baldwin, on the other hand, is so deadpan, so direct in his performance. Where Morgan is bouncing off the walls, Baldwin's style is choppy and staccato, hitting the beat perfectly--a little more mathematical.

And when the two are in a scene together, it's like fireworks. It's like two guitarists soloing at the same time, but each in a different key. Or maybe it's like two people playing ping pong, but without the paddles. In some cases, maybe without the ball too.