THE ALBUMS -- Smokey Robinson, "Where There's Smoke" (Tamla T7-366R1) and "Warm Thoughts."; THE SHOW -- In Constitution Hall, Saturday at 8.
It's been nearly two decades since William "Smokey" Robinson ooo-baby-babied into our hearts with the Miracles. And the living legend of Motown is still crooning earnest ballads on two new albums, "Where There's Smoke" and "Warm Thoughts." Though the current material doesn't have the spark of his old hits, he's bound to rekindle sweet soul memories when he comes to Constitution Hall on Saturday.
At the peak of Motown's success in the early '60s, Smokey was the super-hot lead singer and songwriter for the four-man Miracles. His prolific efforts during that period (best captured on the "Greatest Hits" collection on the Tamla label) are a string of now-classics known for their danceable R&B beat and teen-love lyrics. He left the group in the early '70s to become a producer and a corporate mogul with the Motown empire: Temps, Four Tops, Supremes and so on.
Robinson has continued to turn out albums full of romantic sentiment, minus the tight harmonies of his old male backups.In keeping with Motown's relocation from Detroit to Los Angeles, he's made the switch from '60s cool to '80s chic. Once attired in the Miracles' uniform of matching jackets and skintight pants, he shows up on the cover of "Warm Thoughts" wearing a cowboy hat, tuxedo shirt, designer jeans and fur coat. No longer "Going to a Go-Go," he's ready for the disco.
Most cuts on the 1979 "Where There's Smoke" LP are gentle and undemanding, but lack the energy of the party music of his Miracles heyday. The exception is "Get Ready," one of his songs turned into a hit by The Temptations in 1966. (Others were "My Girl" and "The Way You Do the Things You Do.") Updated on this album, the piece is spiffed up with strings and disco-styled percussion, and Robinson's erotic tenor.Alas, he can't improve on the Temps' full sound, etched in line-dance memory.
Throughout the album, there's more smoke than fire. The emphasis is on sugar-coated urgings and longings, laid-back smoldering lyrics Robinson mastered long ago. The songs are pretty, but where are the hooks of yesteryear? Even "I Love the Nearness of You," a collaboration with Stevie Wonder, is a wispy melody that fades with the last of the violins. "Crusin" is another sensual seduction number, smooth as silk but transient. It adds lavish strings to the old Motown formula: repeated R&B undercurrents, pop guitar riffs and simple lyrics sung by Smokey with backup vocal flourishes.
On this year's "Warm Thoughts" LP, Smokey comes across as a black Rod McKuen. The opening track, "Let Me Be the Clock," has more overworked metaphors in the space of five minutes than one would have thought possible. ("I'm a cuckoo I know, counting hours till we will be together.") The lyrics move from suggestive to trite ("Let me be the pendulum that strikes your chime"), while being sweetened with pretty Smokey vocals. Still, the instrumental track beautifully combines bell chimes, timpani beat, soothing strings and soprano backup chorus. c
One song's title is painfully cute: "Into Each Rain Some Life Must Fall." But this cut turns out to be a lovely ballad, with Smokey's high-pitched solo only sparsely accompanied on piano at first. The words, again may not win poetry prizes ("Some stormy person has the power to start your April shower") -- but that breathy voice conquers all.
Smokey still knows how to steam up the tracks with songs of passion, and to the Motown generation he remains a heart-throb. It's doubtful, however, that his new albums will attract younger audiences being swept away by the new wave. For this weekend's performance, hope he draws generously from the golden "go-go" era along with his current repertoire. d