Though Ross sounds better than ever, I Love You continues a tired trend -- the "covers" album.
2006 is a good year to be Diana Ross. I Love You, her first full-length album of new material since Every Day Is a New Day (1999), finds Ross in very fine form. In fact, she has not sounded this consistently good on record since 1991's The Force Behind the Power. Her ever-distinct voice has developed a shimmering and voluptuous timbre. Amidst the personal travails of the past five years Ross has survived and, if anything, she possesses a stronger instrument for it. That's the good news.
The not-so-good news is that I Love You continues a tired trend -- the "covers" album. Thanks to Clive Davis and his success with Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow, covers albums are now the default mechanism to resuscitate record sales for veteran artists in a marketplace that's more splintered than ever. If the following list is any indication, established black female vocalists are more susceptible to this concept than any other group of performers: Gladys Knight, Before Me (2006); Natalie Cole, Leavin' (2006); Chaka Khan, ClassiKhan (2004); Patti LaBelle, Classic Moments (2005); Dionne Warwick, My Friends and Me (2006); Miki Howard, Pillow Talk (2006); and Vanessa Williams, Everlasting Love (2005). It appears that record companies are hesitant to match these artists with any material that isn't already well-etched in the memories of music buyers. Diana Ross carries off her entry into the covers phenomenon with class and vivacity, but listeners will inevitably compare these songs to the original hit versions.
Ross, at least, has a theme that frames her song selection. I Love You was conceived as an album about love for all occasions. "I envisioned expressions of love through joyful celebrations, family gatherings and intimate moments. Know that…each song was chosen especially for you, for your love, for your family", Ross writes in the liner notes. These "visions" range from a sumptuous version of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" (co-written by Ross' late brother T-Boy) to a passionate and playful rendering of Jackie Wilson’s "To Be Loved". Her source material stems mostly from tunes popularized by male artists in the 1960s and 1970s, and, with only a couple of exceptions, Ross doesn't stray too far from the songs' original arrangements.
However, playing it safe doesn't necessarily work to Ross' advantage. The few low points on I Love You are attributable to poor production choices. "This Magic Moment", a hit in 1960 for The Drifters, and "More Today Than Yesterday", by the rather obscure band The Spiral Staircase, suffer from anemic musical arrangements that sound lifted from karaoke tapes rather than from the sophisticated ears of producers Peter Asher and Steve Tyrell. No matter how much these songs are imbued with Ross' enthusiasm, the synthesized horns mar any sense of musical authenticity.
The title track of the album, "I Love You (That's All That Really Matters)", is the one new composition solicited for the project. It begins nicely enough but wears out its welcome at 5:30. Less meandering is Ross' performance on "What About Love", from the Broadway musical The Color Purple. Here, the tenderness Ross brings to the song could melt even the iciest of hearts. It succeeds not only because Ross is likely the first pop artist to tackle "What About Love", but because her reading of the lyrics is nuanced and heartfelt: "Is that me who's floating away / lifted up to the clouds of your kiss / never felt nothing like this." Without exaggerating, "What About Love" ranks among Ross' finest work from her 45-year career.
The most daring moment on I Love You is a rollicking version of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love". With the assistance of Peter Asher, Ross transforms the original's rockabilly arrangement into a boisterous marching-drum festivity. Queen guitarist Brian May gives Ross the ultimate blessing by laying down a solo on the track. Sandwiched between a laid-back cover of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" and an exquisite version of "Only You" by the Platters, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" is charming in its unabashed bombast.
For moments like "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", you can't help but respect Diana Ross, even if, for instance, you prefer Joe Cocker's version of "You Are So Beautiful" to hers. The woman still exudes a presence on record that is unmatched by artists more than half her age. I Love You won't necessarily expand Ross' audience -- especially with no US release date in sight -- but it does testify to her endearing zealousness to enchant and entertain.