[14 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
By this point, Motown Records has been compiled, anthologized, commemorated, remastered, and reissued so many times it’s difficult to make heads or tails of yet another new collection. But the ever-expanding resurgence of vinyl-loving audiophiles has provided labels and distributors with new opportunities for snatching a bit of money, not to mention dignity, back from the bittorrent traffickers and streaming services.
Clearly, the Motown 7s series is intended for the vinyl set. And, almost by definition, the “rare soul” set is the vinyl set. The first 14-track, 7-by-7”-single set came out in late 2013. This sequel follows in similar fashion, highlighting “rare” Motown tracks from some of the label’s best-known artists as well as some relatively obscure names. Everything is taken from the mid-to-late 1960s, for a couple reasons. That was the second half of Motown’s “golden age”, when the label’s trademark mix of pop and soul had been perfected and even hardened around the edges a bit. Also, this period in Motown history was very influential on the British Northern Soul movement of the same time, a movement which over time has only grown in appeal to rare groove and soul aficionados. Hence, the UK-only issue for these Motown 7s sets. These cuts are nominally “rare,” though many have appeared on previous CD-only compilations or vinyl B-sides.
Nearly all 14 tracks on Motown 7s Box Volume 2 highlight uptempo, stomping 2/4 rhythms, stomping drums, and earnest vocals. The quintessential, and probably most popular, example of this template was the Four Tops’ 1965 smash “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”. That song is not featured here, but pretty much everything here is related to it on an aesthetic level.
This consistency highlights one of the difficulties of considering a “new” Motown collection these days. The Motown sound has been thoroughly defined and embedded into the cultural consciousness due to several factors. These include the lasting impact and continual airplay of the label’s most timeless hits, the steady stream of anthologies and reissues, and Motown’s huge footprint on all sorts of contemporary music styles, from hip-hop to indie pop. The tradeoff now is the fact that the sound has almost become a cliché. This was a charge leveled against Motown even in its heyday, but it seems even more reasonable now. All golden-era Motown tracks sound like golden-era Motown tracks, so how do you tell a “good” one from a “bad” one. The sound is a classic sound, but does that make everything on Motown 7s Box Volume 2 classic?
In a word, no. Motown was turning out material at a very rapid clip. B-sides and outtakes were usually categorized as such for good reason. You really won’t find any “lost classics” among these 14 tracks, but neither will you find many duds. That leaves the middle ground of “solid” or “workmanlike.” Stevie Wonder’s “I Want My Baby Back” is spirited enough, boosted by female backing vocals, though the chorus breakdown sounds a bit unfinished, or under-arranged. The Spinners, mired in their mostly unsuccessful Motown stint, flash hints of the smooth harmonies and lofty strings that would characterize their Atlantic hits on “We’re Gonna Be More Than Friends”. The Isley Brothers were another group with a short stay on Motown, and “Sure Is A Whole Lotta Woman” shows why. With a “Day Tripper”-meets-spy-jazz guitar riff and the declaration, “Baby your dimensions are the kind I can’t resist”, the track is a romp that sounds too ribald and rock ‘n’ roll for Motown even at this stage.
The tracks from the other big Motown names are a bit of a mixed bag. The Temptations’ “Angel Doll” and the Four Tops’ “I’m Grateful” sound like tried-and-true formulas being carried out very well. But Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “If You Ever Get Your Hands On Love” is one of the best things here. Propulsive without overdoing it, expertly arranged and sung, it’s a soaring, get-you-moving moment. Marvin Gaye’s “My Love For You” finds him in full-on crooning lover-man mode, the strings and backing vocals as lush as his voice. These are great, and relatively fresh, reminders that no one could do this kind of soul more effectively than Motown. Girl group lovers will also relish Brenda Holloway’s charming “We’ll Keep On Rolling” and the Velvelettes’ relatively laid back “That’s A Funny Way”. Echoes of these tracks can still be heard in the likes of Saint Etienne, Camera Obscura, and current indie it-pair Elephant among many others.
Also in terms of reminders, this entire collection is, if nothing else, a great chance to savor the genius of the Motown engineers and producers and especially the Funk Brothers house band. The commanding, full yet crisp Motown drum sound, in particular, is on display throughout. There really is no such thing as too many of those BOOM-dah-duh-duh drum rolls.
With pricey box sets like this, packaging is a big deal, and there were complaints about warped records and flimsy sleeves with Volume 1. PopMatters had only digital files on hand, but early reports on Volume 2 are equally mixed. This new set certainly has its rewards, but if the target audience is collectively unimpressed, you have to wonder what exactly the point is.