[10 November 2003]
As it was for just about anyone who lived in the United States, 1968 was an incredibly pivotal year for the Temptations. Having just parted ways with their silk-throated lead singer, David Ruffin, the group found itself turning a corner away from the mellow hits on which it had built its renown—“My Girl”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “I Wish It Would Rain”—in favor of a sound far more urgent and more in touch with the social upheaval that was spreading throughout the country. Ruffin’s replacement, former Contour Dennis Edwards, provided the necessary spark to authenticate the group’s new direction; as the son of an Alabama preacher, Edwards substituted a raw, fire-and-brimstone shout for Ruffin’s lovelorn sensitivity. 1969’s Cloud Nine introduced this new Temptations sound upon the unsuspecting public, and the rest is history—a history well documented by Universal’s new two-disc compilation of the group’s post-Ruffin years.
What was most remarkable about Cloud Nine was the way the group realigned its musical accompaniment to match the edge that Edwards’s voice brought to the table. Gone was the smooth, pretty sheen of the Temptations’ earlier hits, as the record’s eponymous first single announced with bullhorn clarity—“Cloud Nine” was a blast of rock and funk and roll that threatened to catch its sharp edges on any porous material that happened upon its path. But even though the sound of the group’s music had been radically altered, they were astute enough to hold onto what earned them so much popularity in the first place; The Temptations were a vocal group first and foremost. Even on a track like “Runaway Child Running Wild” (the second to represent Cloud Nine on this set), with a droning organ jumping in and out of the nine-minute jam seemingly oblivious to the song’s natural flow, the vocals are still amazingly front and center, layered together like an artful gospel quintet.
While 1969 produced two whole albums and four hit singles (including “I Can’t Get Next to You”, a number one on the pop and R&B charts before Al Green could smooth out its blatant sexual frustration), it wasn’t until the following year that the Temptations perfected their newfound freedom. The group’s masterpiece of this era, Psychedelic Shack (covered by no less than six songs here, including a previously unreleased extended version of the title cut), eschewed the hit-machine format of their previous albums in favor of a more cohesive statement made up of equal parts Harlem discontent and Haight-Ashbury idealism. The one-two punch of “Hum Along and Dance” and “Take a Stroll Through Your Mind” accounts for probably the most satisfying 12 minutes on either of these two discs—moving from another proof-positive example that they hadn’t lost any ground as a vocal group to a jazzy ode to reefer that went so far as to include a lyrical allusion to “My Girl”, presumably to reaffirm that they really hadn’t abandoned their roots as much as it might’ve seemed to the Motown purists.
Although Psychedelic Shack may have been the group’s crowning achievement in terms of full-length albums, the rest of this compilation shows that the Temptations still had plenty of ideas up their silk paisley sleeves. 1971’s Sky’s the Limit (the last to feature original members Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks) didn’t yield much in the way of chart-toppers, but the nearly 13-minute bassoon-addled dub excursion of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” definitely proved that the group had no intentions of abandoning their psychedelic ways. Nor did the band’s last number one hit of this period, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”—released in 1972 on All Directions, this was the jam to end all jams, perfectly capturing the protagonist’s restless nature in 12 minutes of rambling funk.
Maybe the subject matter just lends itself well to the compilation format, but it almost seems as if someone at the major labels is listening to the endless critic complaints over the years concerning the quality of these things. Because as far as retrospective sets go, Psychedelic Soul is about as good as they get—the packaging includes detailed track information, liner notes and photos, virtually no filler, and the sequencing is chronological and judiciously separated between the two discs. The only way you could do better is to track down the original vinyl records (most remain unissued domestically on CD) and make your own compilation—but that hardly seems worthwhile when such a fine effort has already been made, does it?