It has been a good year for soul music. Not only have the neo/nu coterie all dropped solid releases but, for the first time in ages, older artists have made comeback albums that have not been embarrassingly under-produced and/or hopelessly dated. Special mention must go to Shabazz and Main Ingredient, two acts who have totally exceeded expectations, but this set is also a winner and is possibly the best project the Philly veterans have been involved with since the late Eighties.
Not that this is packed with “Backstabbers” type masterpieces. The Gamble-Huff era is long gone. Nor is it the O’Jays go hip-hop/R&B in a vain attempt to crash urban radio’s narrow playlist. They sound as they should — a mature act, more at ease with ballads than faster numbers but with an awareness of contemporary production styles. Some tracks are more obviously “now” in conception than others, but there is little that sounds forced. Mostly, For the Love is made up of mid-tempo to slowish tunes sung perfectly over some crisp and careful arrangements. As such, it puts most recent black vocal group efforts to shame.
Original members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams, plus relative newcomer Steve Corbin, all come from the pre-nasal school of song. Its superiority over the more recent model has been recently demonstrated by younger singers such as Tank and Calvin Richardson — and the success of Jaheim in particular hopefully means that the real thing is back for good. The O’Jays are nothing if not the real thing. They began way back in the doo-wop era and were already seasoned performers when they became the central platform for the Philly sound in the early seventies. Their dancier numbers rather obscured their talents as balladeers and also simply as vocalists of distinction, but Levert especially is now deservedly recognised as one of soul music’s great voices.
Here he and his partners have strong enough material to do those voices justice. Of the 11 tracks, at least three are markedly “modern” but the majority could fit almost anywhere in the nearly five decades of the group’s existence. The perils of current programming probably mean you will only hear the newer-sounding songs, unless you buy the record, but the best cuts are probably those for which the adjective timeless will probably be pressed into service. Better perhaps to say that the emotions and musical values embodied in songs like “I Don’t Know”, “Baby Making Love” and “Sounds Like Me” will always appeal to anyone for whom the term Soul still means something.
Credit for this happy state of affairs is due to the O’Jays as writers, producers and arrangers as well as singers. With the exception of one track it is very much their album. Experience obviously counts in more areas than one. Co-producer and string arranger, Derek Nakamoto, who additionally plays a mean keyboard, also deserves mention — as do all the musicians gathered together in the Palace Studios, Cleveland that was home to the whole operation. If other long-serving soul acts are thinking of once more gracing us with their presence, my advice is that they head for Ohio. They seem to understand how to do this sort of thing there.
As to the songs that are more obviously tailored to current tastes, it is a relief to report that they are more than satisfactory. “Latin Lover” sways along efficiently – spoiled only by the tiredness of the lyrics. Do Hispanic women get fed up with this cheap exoticism within which they are always depicted? I hope so. They should protest, it might make songwriters think a tad harder. The most R&B cut is “Let’s Ride” and though musically it works, again the lyrics sound somewhat off. Guys, you are just a little old to be cruising for shorties to take back to your crib, sorry. No such problems with “Long Distance Lover”, sassy bass-line, excellent B-3 licks and anguished vocals all combine magically — quality urban sounds, whatever generation you belong to.
The only weak track of the more traditional cuts is “Come on Over to My House” — full of clichés and nowhere nearly as sexy as it thinks it is. Of the others, the Valentinos borrowings of “Searching for My Lost Love” work well — although Bobby Womack may find it too close to “Looking For A Love” for his liking. The ballads “Put Out the Fire” and “I’m Ready Now” are suitably expressive and have a cool funkiness to them. Towards the end of the set come the three killers. “I Don’t Know” is classic two-step soul, melodically as smooth as silk but with real heartbreak in Levert’s voice. My favourite track, “Baby Making Love”, is a lush, mid-tempo dancer from the very top drawer while “Sounds Like Me” is as intense a wailer as any male singers are likely to deliver this year. Any one of these treats would make the record worth investing in. They have that mixture of passion and urbanity that the vocal groups from the industrial Northern cities always possessed. It is a joy to hear it again.
The absence of a storming uptempo song is a pity but no real surprise. Don’t be fooled though. There is genuine power here, although it may not hit you as instantly as it once did. In some ways that is an advantage. This is a record whose charm increases with each hearing. Like the act itself I suspect this disc has built-in longevity. I would go as far to say that any future “Best of the O’Jays” compilation that does not include something from For The Love would not be a true “Best Of”. Given the strength of their back catalogue that is saying something. The O’Jays never really went away but they have not sounded this good for a while. Let’s hope the fickle pop market takes note.