By now more an idea than a band, the Temptations return with a tightly constructed, mostly fun, yet deeply inessential new record. The Temps, among the two or three most successful bands of the 1960s — “My Girl”, “Get Ready”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Just My Imagination”, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” — now boast exactly one of their original members. This is important for two reasons: 1) These guys are not really the Temptations anymore (they are guys who are playing the Temptations); and, 2) No matter what they do here, no matter how successful the record is, every reviewer, fan, and even casual listener who is aware of this fact will likely struggle to really pay attention to what’s going on here.
This is a shame, but totally understandable. I mean, what would be the point of paying close attention to, say, the Rolling Stones if it was Mick backed by session guys? The Beach Boys without Brian Wilson? Guns N’ Roses if it was just Axl and a bunch of — oh, wait.
But, what is likely to be missed about this record, in light of its being less a Temptations record than an Otis Williams and Friends record, is that it’s fairly good (if, again, mostly unnecessary). Indeed, it is a smooth, soulful, slickly-produced R&B record with no bells and whistles (I mean that kind of literally) and an eye to celebrating the best of the genre. In many ways, this is a tribute record, a cover album by a pseudo-cover band playing the Temptations. However, they work hard to earn their moniker. Otis has got to be proud.
Back to Front is a collection of material from outside of the Motown fold. The Temptations left their old label a few years back now, after holding the second longest tenure at Gordy’s hit shack, just behind Stevie Wonder. Calling on songs from Barry White (“Never, Never Gonna Give Up”), Sam and Dave (“Hold On, I’m Coming”), and The Staples (“Respect Yourself”) the new Temps revisit material from their Stax/Volt and other non-Motown rivals. And, turning to unlikely covers, Back to Front also visits ’70s disco and blue-eyed soul for inspiration, trying on the Doobie Brothers (“Minute by Minute”) and the Bee Gees (“How Deep Is Your Love”).
But, let’s face it. Did the world need another version of “Hold On, I’m Coming”? Arguably the greatest soul song of the 1960s (hell, maybe the greatest song of the ’60s), it wasn’t exactly begging for improvements. “Minute by Minute” was a pretty hot tune back in 1978, and now it’s a pretty decent cover. “Respect Yourself”, a vehicle for an impossibly cool Pop Staples back in the early ’70s, all grey beard and pious intensity, here sounds like, well, like a cover. And, while they perform these classic numbers with respect, passion, and style, they can’t be said to advance any of the original versions.
As a general rule, a worthy cover is one which, if it were the only version you knew of the song, wouldn’t sound pale and unnecessary when you one day heard the original. This rule tends to look unfavorably at the Temptations’ new record. It doesn’t say much for the new Temptations either.