WHEN SMOKEY Robinson sings about his heart breaking, his voice has the breathless quality of an agitated lover who doesn't want to confess his feelings but can't stop himself. While maintaining this effect, however, Robinson exerts masterful control over his phrasing and pitch. Thus, he brings high style to catharsis on his new album, "Touch the Sky" (Tamla T8-375M1).
After two successful albums with producer/songwriter George Tobin, Robinson has reassumed control of his recording career. He co-produced the new album with his longtime keyboardist, Reginald (Sonny) Burke. Robinson wrote or co-wrote six of the eight songs. The atmosphere is reflective: Six tunes are ballads; two more are mid-tempo; nothing rocks out. This fits the dominant subject: middle-aged marriage under siege by betrayal, separations and cooling passions. The 43-year-old Robinson captures all the pain and desperation of long marriages falling apart.
The album's two best songs concern infidelity. "Gimme What You Want" is a complaint to a lover who expects faithfulness while she has "10 secret loves." The song opens with Burke's unsettling minor chords on the electric piano; then Robinson flatly states, "It's no good." He pauses and then grimly adds, "It's no fun." As the building, brooding keyboards poke through the pauses in Robinson's understated singing, one gets the sense of the tremendous anger behind such restrained conversations. "All My Life's a Lie" features the helpless cry of a man who discovers his apparently happy marriage is just the base of a secret triangle. At just the right moment, Robinson's steady voice gives a slight quiver. His band counters his sad ballad pace with a light swing.
The anger turns to regret on "Gone Again," a lament from a husband who's moved out for a while but wants to come back for good. Over a lyrical guitar solo by David T. Walker, Robinson sings low and sad when the lyrics discuss past problems but breaks into a giddy falsetto when the lyrics turn to hopes for the future. These hopes turn to resignation on "Sad Time" by Scott Getlin and Stephen Tavani. The song describes a marriage emptied of love and solutions. Over Ernie Watts' emotive alto sax, Robinson summons up tremendous dignity to face the heart-breaking prospect that this marriage must end.
The two mid-tempo songs are more hopeful. "Touch the Sky" advises a heart-broken woman to rebound with the singer. "Dynamite" is an intoxicating evocation of erotic therapy quite similar to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." Both these songs are given strong impetus by exploding bass lines from the legendary James Jamerson of the original Motown house band.
This album's biggest weakness is its lack of punch. Everything is so light and airy that nothing will grab the attention of the casual listener. Co-producer Burke is an excellent keyboardist but a weak drummer. The drum tracks are often perfunctory and never give the songs the anchoring bottom that the best soul music requires. Despite this, the record is an honest, affecting look at marital troubles from the inside.
"Bad Girl," one of Robinson's earliest compositions from his days with the Miracles, leads off the second side of the new album by the Dazz Band, "On the One" (Motown 6031 ML). This nine-member funk aggregation is clearly built on the Earth, Wind & Fire model: a big groove, secondary percussion, punchy horns and clean vocal harmonies that blend tenors and falsettos. Unfortunately, the Dazz Band lacks the outstanding players and singers that give E, W & F its saving crispness. Without that precise execution, the E, W & F model quickly becomes a hollow formula in the hands of the Dazz Band.
Moreover, saxophonist Bobby Harris, guitarist Eric Fearman and producer Reggie Andrews have provided undernournished compositions for the band to record. Most of the songs consist of a simple musical phrase and a typical funk beat that are repeated ad nauseam. The lyrics are endless, mindless variations on the sentiment "Let's party tonight, girl." The contrast between these thrown-together compositions and Robinson's timeless romanticism on "Bad Girl" couldn't be greater.