The Vaults, Universal Records. Two compilers fire torch beams up and down the darkened and dust-edged shelves. “Time to raid the archives,” says one. “Yes, indeed—now we’ve got Island and Def Jam and Motown and oh, A&M, of course, to draw on,” responds the other. “So it’s a soul collection we’re after?” “Uh, uh.” “So, we just pick stuff at random and hope it fits together in some way or other?” “Guess so.”
I never caught the original Heart of Soul Classics so I’m not sure whether there’s a pattern here, but this new compilation dips into the bran tub of several decades and pulls out a curious selection of black pop songs, old and not so old, and releases them on Hip-O, a Universal subsidiary that appears dedicated to recycling most of America’s soul heritage in the wake of the PolyGram buy out of 1998.
Sadly this scatter-gun approach to soulploitation makes for rather sorry listening, careering erratically from the mid-Sixties to the end of the Eighties and back like a time machine out of control. And while several of the tunes have a pedigree—Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Ooh Ooh Baby” and Lionel Richie’s “Love Will Conquer All”, for example—other tracks are closer to fillers than killers.
The curtain rises with a delicious slice of the underrated Con Funk Shun and a song called “Love’s Train”, a sweet funk salvo, but the sentimental contributions of the Dynamic Superiors, a strange tribute to the shoe shine business, and the Originals set the project back and it never quite gets back on track.
Even Marvin Gaye and Barry White fail to raise the stakes with forgettable album tracks from the early Seventies and Lenny Williams’ tired melodrama on “‘Cause I Love You” from later in that decade recalls Millie Jackson to the extent that she could carry off that sort of romantic-soap-in-a-song without alienating her audience while this piece comes across as a self-pitying monologue interpersed with off the scale vocal gymnastics. The choices that carry Patti Labelle and Chaka Khan’s names perpetuate the parade of mediocrity and the Richie’s finale is all too long in coming.
Hip-O has a swelling catalogue of similar compilations alongside a growing string of “Best ofs”, so the archive is clearly being put to serious work. Yet this kind of showcase is actually counterproductive—it certainly uses the term “classics” lazily and evidences so little care in the selection process that you suspect commercial impetus has swept aside any notion of artistic conception. That said, the sleeve notes by a writer called Mr Rex, who pays tribute to the Cappuccino Kid (does he really mean Paul Weller, who has adopted the pen-name in the past?) for his inspiration, do show a more creative touch.