Reel in Boyz II Men's tribute album, enjoy a listen or two, then throw back.
It's easy to tell the game plan for a Boyz II Men album. Just look at the title:
- Cooleyhighharmony: An introduction to their modern sound, rooted in nostalgic harmonies.
- II: Their second album. Duh.
- Evolution: A more hip sound and image.
- Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya: A more personal effort, with increased control over writing and producing.
- Full Circle: A return to, well, a commercially successful album sound. (They failed.)
So where do you go after coming "full circle?" You go back in time.
Throwback is a tribute to the vintage R&B sound of the '70s and '80s that inspired the group's style. It's also a direct refutation of the sterility in today's hip-hop-inclined R&B music.
As the liner notes state, "The industry's in a major state of emergency, mostly becuz [sic] of the lack of creativity. It's up to us to make the game worth being a part of again, so stop trying to do what they do and do you!"
Ironically, the group's display of "creativity" takes the form of an album full of covers. Even more ironically, the covers aren't very creative.
Throwback, the first in what the group claims will be a series of cover albums (Throwback II: The Revenge!), smacks a bit of desperation. Granted, recent tribute albums by the likes of Tony Bennett, Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, and Michael McDonald have sold well, but the primary audience for those albums is 40-something housewives. Although Boyz II Men aren't the chart-topping powerhouse they once were, they're not a middle-aged Las Vegas lounge-act just yet.
That said, if any current group can pull off an album dedicated to less-than-current R&B, it's Boyz II Men. They were never an uber-hip group, gleefully sporting on their debut what they deemed the "Alex Vanderpool" style: bowties, nerdish argyle socks, hush puppies, and checkered cardigans.
Though their taste in clothes is questionable, their taste in music is not. Song selection is a challenge inherent in any covers album, and Throwback features a wealth of bona fide staples of '70s and '80s R&B. But therein lies the problem. Tunes like Al Green's "Let's Stay Together", the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You", and Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do for Love" are such staples of urban radio's nightly "quiet storm" showcase that their impact of any remake is minimal unless drastic changes are made. Somewhat less expected -- though still familiar to fans of the era -- are One Way's "Cutie Pie", Dazz Band's "Let It Whip", and DeBarge's "Time Will Reveal".
The other major test of a covers album is its ability to breathe in new life into the material. (Anyone remember Dolly Parton's version of "I Will Always Love You"?) On that level, Boyz II Men again are spotty. Several of their renditions -- particularly Teddy Pendergrass's "Close the Door", "Cutie Pie", "For the Love of You", and the Sylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New" -- are far too faithful to the originals to have much purpose. Since the group produced all of the songs themselves, they have no one else to blame. It's almost as if they felt so intimidated by the classic songs that they didn't want to besmirch their memory.
That fear wouldn't be completely unfounded, of course. So many of these tunes are considered nearly untouchable by the R&B fan base that "the Boyz" would have a tough time living up to their standard under the best of circumstances.
Still, they manage to hold their own on several tracks. Most notably, the strumming acoustic guitar added to both Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and Hall & Oates's "Sara Smile" lends a fresh, folksy "AM Gold" feel. A hint of acoustic guitar likewise spruces up Klymaxx's "I Miss You", already enlivened with a switch to male vocals.
Their rendition of Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do for Love", the album's first single, also takes chances by incorporating a light hip-hop edge, accentuated by an old-school rap from fellow-throwback MC Lyte.
The only other risky remake is "Time Will Reveal", on which Boyz II Men return to their a cappella roots. Without the sultry music and El DeBarge's sweet-cum-wussy falsetto, however, the force behind the song is nil.
While the group can't pull off the DeBarge track, their vocal strength buoys the otherwise lackluster cuts (although "Cutie Pie" isn't exactly a showcase for one's singing chops). To their credit, the absence of ailing bass vocalist Michael McCary isn't noticeable, and their voices blend as richly as ever.
Throwback's retro style is a welcome change of pace that may well introduce these classics to Boyz II Men's younger fans, but it's far too safe and predictable to be worth more than a couple of listens. Let's hope the group brings this throwback sound to their next original album.