Sure, it’s a fool’s game to categorize genius, to attempt to define the little intangible variables that distinguish transcendent inspiration from competent craftsmanship. Still, it’s hard not to miss Smokey Robinson’s presence here, on a compilation of the Miracles’ post-Robinson best.
The first thing you’ll notice is the lead singing: Billy Griffin’s no Smokey Robinson. That, then, is the first difference between inspiration and craft: Robinson’s falsetto is great, while Griffin’s is workmanlike. Of course, marketing continuity demanded that the Miracles replace Robinson with another falsetto, so we get, with Robinson’s blessings, Griffin. Griffin’s not bad, but he doesn’t have Smokey’s way with the subtle, delicate, melancholy phrasing. His voice doesn’t linger, resignedly but tenderly, over all the little intricacies of heartbreak the way that Robinson’s does.
Partially, that’s the fault of the producer. In the liner notes, Miracles leader Pete Moore credits producer Freddie Perrin, “one of the greatest producers of all time”, with their ‘70s sound. “I think of his works as semi-classical—a touch of sweeping strings, or a horn part that brings up strong emotions, and always in perfect pitch,” Moore writes. With semi-classical backing, Griffin doesn’t get the chance to show what understated, tender singing he might have been capable of.
With Smokey Robinson, the Miracles had been the understated opposite of Levi Stubbs’ Four Tops. While the Four Tops had favored grand productions of grand songs outlining grand sentiments, the Miracles had eschewed all touches of ham-fistedness. The Miracles sang with and about tender, quiet moments of both happiness and joy. Even when the lyrics were obviously witty, as in “Choosey Beggar” or “Shop Around”, the wit was gentle and graceful, pithy and never overstated in its cleverness. In their best songs with Robinson, the Miracles embodied what was best about classic Motown: soulful, timeless tributes to Everyman.
Without Robinson writing, producing, and singing, the Miracles sink into the same excesses that had plagued the Four Tops. Without Robinson’s understated wordplay, producer Perrin attempts to gloss over the indistinct nature of the songs with a sheen of heavy production, hoping to elevate vague, often characterless declarations of love into the realm of the universal and archetypal.
Except that, if one must have overarrangement and overproduction, Levi Stubbs at least had a voice big enough to arguably match such excess. And the Four Tops also had songs with tempos fast and strong enough to sweep aside intellectual objections to excess and carry one along on the weird Wagnerian grandiosity of their romantic sentiments. The Four Tops aren’t for every personality or mood, but sometimes it works.
The Four Tops, in fact, work more often than do the songs here. Without the insistent tempos and substituting Griffin for Stubbs, the songs are indistinct and occasionaly even lapse into the mushy. For a group that, with Smokey Robinson, could have trademarked a certain type of quiet falsetto balladry, it’s surprising to realize that the best song here has little to do with love. The best song, naturally, is “Love Machine”. The title has “love”, sure, but it’s a disco/dance song, not the candlelit makeout song that the old Miracles specialized in.
Second best is “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.”, another song from City of Angels, the Miracles’ 1975 concept album about loving L.A. and loving L.A. because of, and not in spite of, its eccentricities. After detailing the surreal misfits prowling the city streets (“‘Most everyone is AC/DC”), the song concludes with the (straight) singers getting into a car (You can hear it driving off) to go to a gay bar because “gay people are nice people, too”. It’s nearly impossible to deny a smile during the goodhearted humor of the song, so why try?
Still, by another of the album’s best songs, “Spy for Brotherhood”, about someone being a misfit for preaching tolerance, one realizes that the best Miracles songs are now effective studio craft, just as the Miracles’ duds are ineffective studio craft. Sure, they’re still nice and sweet, and they’re occasionally funnier than they were with Robinson, but they no longer have that deep benevolence that radiates outward from the heart and lifts up the corner of your mouth even if the song you’re listening to is actually about being heartbroken. They’ve become, well, just another band.
So there you are: subtract Smokey Robinson’s singing and pithy wit and add a paint bucket’s worth of glossy production coating. What do you get? Pretty generic ‘70s Motown.