For 10 years, from 1961 through 1971, the Motown formula hummed like a finely tuned machine: Excited kids sang breathlessly about love and dancing as seasoned pros backed them up with dramatic arrangements and rhythms that just wouldn't quit. As the kids grew up, though, change became inevitable. Some of the newly mature singers chose to confront the world beyond the love song, while others chose to retreat from the world even further within romantic insularity.
Marvin Gaye's 1971 album "What's Going On" opted for greater confrontation. It not only addressed such subjects as war, the environment and generational conflict, but it also introduced challenging jazz elements into soul. With its prodding music and persistent questions, the album insisted on engagement and change. By contrast, Smokey Robinson's 1975 album "A Quiet Storm" opted for retreat. One of the few records to launch a whole radio format, "Quiet Storm" and its fluttering, intensely private romanticism seduced an audience that wanted a respite from conflicts and demands.
Motown's artists -- and soul singers in general -- have been torn between these two models ever since. Even Gaye and Robinson switched sides (Gaye pursuing romantic cocooning on "I Want You" and Robinson pursuing romantic conflict on "Essar"). Robinson falls back on the "Quiet Storm" model of mood music for his new album, "Love, Smokey," while Motown's newest star, Milira Jones, has launched her career with a version of Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)."
Smokey Robinson: 'Love, Smokey'
Robinson's "Love, Smokey" (Motown) marks a regrettable return to atmospheric love songs, a genre that undermines his strengths as a writer: the sharp specificity of his metaphors and the danceability of his rhythms. The man Bob Dylan once called "America's greatest poet") is reduced to cranking out make-out background music. The greatest songwriter/producer ever to come out of Motown wrote only seven of the 13 tracks (including a reprise of 1984's "I Can't Find") and produced only two. The singing is superb -- no one does breathy intimacy better than Robinson -- but the songs and arrangements are numbingly bland.
Robinson (who headlines at Wolf Trap tomorrow night) is still capable of much better. His previous album, 1987's "One Heartbeat," boasted some of his most ambitious songwriting. He gives hints of that talent on "Love, Smokey." His understated production on "Come to Me Soon" turns his composition into one languorous sigh. His lyrics for "Unless You Do It Again" capture the contradictions and hollowness of lovers' resolutions ("I'm never more falling for your same old stuff ... unless you do it again"). His radiantly romantic vocal on Dave Loggins's "You Made Me Feel Love" is nicely complemented by Take 6's vocal harmonies and Gerald Albright's alto sax.
For the most part, though, this is background music from an artist who insists on our full attention when he's at his best. What can you say about an album whose most notable innovation is the inclusion of a scented sample from Robinson's new perfume line, Smoke?
Milira Jones: 'Milira'
The 19-year-old Milira Jones wasn't even born when Gaye recorded "Mercy Mercy Me" for his "What's Going On" album, but she chose the song as the debut single from her debut album, "Milira" (Apollo Theatre/Motown). This is also the first release from Apollo Theatre Records, a label designed to showcase discoveries from the Harlem theater's legendary amateur night. Jones, the daughter of a Jackie Wilson background singer, wowed the Apollo audience with her mature command of jazz, gospel and soul styles.
Pop-soul singers like Sade and Anita Baker have betrayed jazz influences in their recent hits, but both have subordinated them to the "Quiet Storm" ambiance of their love ballads. Jones, by contrast, plays up her jazz instincts, offering scat solos and unorthodox phrasing. In remaking "Mercy Mercy Me," for example, what she jumps on is not the song's political message but rather its jazz possibilities. Her version includes a sax solo by Najee and a violin solo by Noel Pointer, but most interesting is the way Jones sings against the expected phrasing to tighten the song's tension and expand its release. She radically alters the phrasing on Aretha Franklin's "Until You Come Back to Me" in much the same way.
The result is not true jazz singing but jazz-informed soul singing. The rest of the album is dominated by love songs, but rather than soothing escapism, Jones creates an air of uncertainty and possibility in the music that gives the romantic lyrics a similar suspense. Nate Calhoun, who sounds uncannily like Stevie Wonder, joins her in a dramatic duet, "I Want to Be to You (What You Are to Me)," and Jones displays her gospel roots on her own composition, "That Four Letter Word." Milira Jones is the best young voice to come into pop music since Whitney Houston, and she has already demonstrated much better musical taste.
En Vogue: 'Born to Sing'
It seems like every time a male producer gets some clout in the industry, he forms a vocal group of good-looking women. Prince formed Vanity 6 (and then Apollonia 6); George Clinton formed the Brides of Funkenstein; August Darnell formed the Coconuts; and Rick James formed the Mary Jane Girls. Once the ex-Club Nouveau members Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy had scored hits as songwriter/producers for Tony Toni Tone, they formed a female quartet of their own called En Vogue. This group had one important difference: Instead of recruiting good-looking models, Foster & McElroy picked four solid singers.
En Vogue contributed to the Foster & McElroy album "FM2" last year and has now released its debut album, "Born to Sing" (Atlantic). The first single, "Hold On" (which has already gone to No. 1 on the black pop charts), opens with some spectacular a cappella counterpoint, then settles into a mid-tempo funk groove as the four women combine heartbroken sighs with impeccable harmonies. The song's appeal has more to do with the production and ensemble singing than with the songwriting or the lead vocal, though, and nothing else on the album indicates that a standout lead singer or songwriter is on the premises.
The album includes a hip-hop arrangement of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and a spoken track that has the four women putting down lame pickup lines from men at a "Party." Otherwise, it's dominated by strong harmony singing over competent but pedestrian funk. Strong harmony singing and competent funk are never in short supply, and there's no reason to believe Foster & McElroy or En Vogue will still be having hits in five years.