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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes: self-titled

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes [re-issue]

One quick skim read through this re-release’s liner notes and you’re met with a lengthy description of its times. In the early ’70’s, we’re reminded, the world was filled with the Vietnam War, a U.S. president in Nixon trying to plead honesty, and a rampant civil rights movement.

The point seems to be that only in great national and societal strive could this group have persisted in their quest for a distinctive sound, in the hope for creating beauty. It is a nice sentiment, an idea of facing war and hate with love and flowers, but the notes make it sound like these seven songs of love and relationships could not have been written without all that uncertainty in the world … as if this were a collection of Gil Scott-Heron cuts. And if knowing the era is so important, the question then begs to be asked: does this still play, or is it for nostalgic purposes only? The answer is difficult, and most probably the reason for the political infusion in the release.

It isn’t hard to hear how this has influenced many people (all sexual content aside and for good and bad) as in Pendergrass’s vocal tortures you can hear every future American Idol contestant trying to bounce their notes all over the place. You can also hear the group fiddling with and discovering the blueprint for almost anything to be called R&B or soul to come after it.

And while their influence is true, some of this (at least to my twenty-something ears) sounds overblown and cheesy, with “Ebony Woman” so sugary it can almost rot your teeth. “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” is also included, a song which, despite its catchy melody and worthy status as mega hit, has been played so much in the last 20 years that even its first notes are enough for you to cry overkill. The shame is that the song’s saccharine feel is easily outmatched by a series of memorable moments and inspired performances elsewhere.

Teddy Pendergrass’s near insane pleadings on “I Miss You” and “Yesterday I Had the Blues”, for example are enough to rouse just about anyone, compensating for much of the schmaltz that covers a couple of the rest. Only in those moments of sheer intensity and attack does anything involving the politics of that time become relevant. It is then that the group pushes beyond simply being smooth and into something really moving.

But to talk about social commentary is to overlook the real attraction of the Blue Notes: their sheer unadulterated and romantic sexual feel. It’s alternatively sickening and exciting to think of how many people have had sex listening to this, and with reason, as there are very few groups and even fewer now than then who could make people want to make love.

All of the aforementioned tracks have this quality in spades, and “Let It Be You”, in particular, is wonderful, with the group trading vocal duties and supplying a bed of some of the most sensual music you’ve ever and will ever hear. This, despite any context of time and style, is what is synonymous with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and even for much of Teddy Pendergrass’s solo fare.

The re-release, though, is curious, hopeful perhaps to bank on airwaves turning to safer softer fare. Yet with no extras save a gratuitous and hardly essential live version of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”, and very little in the way of exciting artwork or packaging, it feels as if those involved either have little hope for this, or they have assumed its music speaks for itself.

Considering that the world will never tire of nakedness and intimacy, the latter theory then just might work. That this be relevant in a political climate similar in many ways to ’72 seems far less likely, though, but it is at least a reminder of how lovely love can sound.