Motown's artistic resources have dwindled to a precious few: Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. The company's other famous stars of the '60s are now on other labels (the Jacksons, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight), reduced to oldies shows (the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves) or dead (Marvin Gaye).
The company still has several hot commercial properties -- Lionel Richie, Rick James and DeBarge -- but no one seriously considers these derivative hit-makers as major artistic influences in the tradition of Wonder, Robinson or Holland-Dozier-Holland.
So it all comes down to Stevie and Smokey. Both have ended extended silences with new albums in recent months. Wonder's "In Square Circle" is an aural utopia, but the lyrics are an embarrassing collection of mushy romanticism, awkward syntax and simplistic sloganeering. Robinson's "Smoke Signals" (Pamla 6156TL) also sounds good; his high tenor is as seductively satiny as ever. Robinson didn't put much effort into this album, though; he left most of the song writing, producing and arranging to others. The result is a cliche'd sentimentality much like Wonder's.
It's as if both have succumbed to the Paul McCartney curse: Their ability to make great-sounding pop music is intact, but they've lost the ability to make the music matter. It remains to be seen if these Motown artists will ever again match the powerful social statements of "What's Goin' On" and "Hotter Than July" or the sheer sensuality of "Let's Get It On" and "Being With You."
Easily the best song on "Smoke Signals" is "Hold On to Your Love," cowritten by Wonder and Robinson. It's a symbiotic collaboration: Wonder's inventive funk rhythm stands out among the album's more predictable grooves, and Robinson's lyrics boast the graceful phrasing Wonder so often lacks. They should collaborate more often. Robinson's "Hanging On by a Thread" features the kind of extended analogy that made his '60s hits so clever. Comparing a relationship to a frayed fabric, Robinson sings the lovely melody with a convincing romantic desperation that's elaborated into lush vocal harmony -- by Richard Carpenter of all people.
Another Robinson composition, "Because of You," is a snappy midtempo dance groove; "Te Quiero Como Si No Hubier un Man ana" is a bilingual Latin party song with a trumpet solo by Herb Alpert. The bright rhythm tracks and shimmering vocal make the song attractive, but it's so slight that it's quickly forgettable. As such it resembles the five songs on the album that Robinson didn't write.
Robinson's one message song is "Be Kind to the Growing Mind." This gentle but clumsy reprimand about explicitly sexual lyrics is obviously directed at Prince. Robinson makes the unconvincing argument that pop songs shouldn't tackle adult subjects because children might overhear. Unfortunately this puts one of American music's most influential lyricists on the reactionary side of the current censorship debate.
This song features harmony vocals by the Temptations, once the most effective vehicle for Robinson's songs. The Temptations are so deeply buried in the mix, though, that they sound no different than the obscure studio singers on the other cuts. This is somehow appropriate, for the Temptations have become a collection of largely anonymous background singers. In fact, the only two memorable tracks on their new album, "Touch Me" (Gordy 6164 GL), feature guest singers. The best song and first single is Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller's "Do You Really Love Your Baby." Miller produced the very funky track that keeps shifting from pattern to pattern, and Vandross lent his mountainous voice. The six voices jump in and out of the restless track in a dizzingly kaleidoscopic fashion. The other standout is "Don't Break Your Promise to Me," with singer Alfie Silas. Her gospel-tinged voice cuts through the pretty harmonies and gives this old-fashioned heartbreak song the element of desperation it needs.
The rest of the album is well sung, but none of the songs and none of the lead vocals boasts that personal identity that might separate it from a dozen other professional performances released each month. The three formulaic songs written by original member Otis Williams and newest member Ali-Ollie Woodson only reinforce how dependent the Temptations are on good material. Twenty years ago, at the height of Motown's golden era, that material would have come from Smokey Robinson. He once wrote enough songs to supply not only himself but the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and the Marvelettes too. Now he can't even fill up his own album.