Last year Motown Records snapped out of its long, heartbreaking decline to once again provide some leadership for soul music. Smokey Robinson had a smash single in the sensually insinuating "Cruisin'" and an ambitious album in the richly written "Warm Thoughts." Diana Ross made "Diana," her happiest, snappiest disc since she left the Supremes. Motown founder Berry Gordy returned to the studio to produce the Temptations' rousing "Power." Stevie Wonder wrote and produced three songs for Jermaine Jackson's "Let's Get Serious," and went on to write 10 uncompromising songs for his own "Hotter Than July."
This year the label has sustained its momentum. Marvin Gaye has released the brilliant "In Our Lifetime" (Tamla T8-74M1), his best album in eight years. And although Diana Ross has slipped back into her old schmaltzy schlock, both Smokey Robinson and Jermaine Jackson have made impressive follow-ups to last year's successes.
Last year's "Warm Thoughts" showed off Smokey Robinson's writing skills. This year's "Being With You" (Tamla T8-375M1) shows off his mesmerizing voice. Robinson only wrote four of the eight songs and left the production chores to George Tobin, concentrating instead on romantic crooning. His seductive purr on the five love ballads could melt the most prudish heart.
The album opens with a long, fluttering falsetto "oooh!" Robinson's expressive vowel sounds simultaneously like a sentimental swoon and an orgasmic moan. His ability to combine romance and sensualtiy in the same satiny, breathy voice is the key to this album's appeal.
That "oooh!" leads off Robinson's hypnotic title tune, the album's best. It's followed by the weakest, "Food for Thought," a hackneyed calypso protest song. "Can't Fight Love" bounces and slides along till it builds a dizzying momentum.
Everything else is slow -- so slow that Robinson can caress each consonant and reluctantly release each vowel. "If Our Wanna Make Love" is a soul ballad so old-fashioned and so good that it could fit on the 1965 "Miracles Greatest Hits From the Beginning."
Jermaine Jackson may not be as successful or immediately appealing as his younger brother, Michael, or his four other brothers in the Jacksons. But his music is far more ambitious than his brothers' and is ultimately more rewarding. His collaboration with Stevie Wonder last year has paid off in the substance and sophistication of this year's "Jermaine" (Motown M8-948M1).
Though Wonder doesn't appear on "Jermaine," his influence can be heard in Jackson's songwriting, arranging, producing and singing. Unlike his childhood work with the Jackson Five -- which was all bright and obvious -- Jermaine Jackson's music has matured into the moody, multidirectional approach of Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
The horns and percussion on "Jermaine" don't necessarily support the lead vocal, but often offer contrast to it. Former jazz pianist Herbie Hancock adds shimmering synthesizer colors throughout the album. The backing vocals are distances by a thick echo and then set in counterpoint to the lead. Jackson uses Gaye's tecnhique of adding barely audible instruments at the fringes to create a sense of immense space.
As a result, the background in each song is constantly shifting and constantly surprising. Jackson's lead vocals are also constantly shifting through a variety of colors -- meditative whispers, falsetto squeals, husky growls, excited shouts and romantic crooning -- as he explores love from every perspective.
"You Like Me Don't You" has a meditative Marvin Gaye ghostliness."Little Girl Don't You Worry" explodes like a Stevie Wonder rave-up. "All Because of You" has a swooning Smokey Robinson sensuality. "You've Changed" is full of lush Beach Boys harmonies. Though side two gets a bit schmaltzy, "Jermaine" establishes Jackson as the heir apparent to the progressive side of the Motown tradition.
Diana Ross' new "To Love Again" (Motown M8-951M1) is the popular opposite to last year's "Diana." Last year's album -- composed and produced by Chic -- had a stark, direct feel from the punkish cover art to the compelling dance music inside. This year's album -- composed and produced by Michael Masser -- has a frilly escapist feel from the Hollywood cover art to the drowsy lounge music inside.
This transformation suggest that Diana Ross is simply an attractive container that can be filled with whatever her producer chooses. Masser has chosen to fill this album with the string-laden, cliche-ridden sentimentality from which he's famous.
Six of the album's nine cuts are previously released collaborations between Ross and Masser, including the movie theme songs from the 1975 "Mahogany" and last year's "It's My Turn." The three new collaborations jerk at the tears just as shamelessly.