Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Temptations - Hear to Tempt You / Bare Back (2014 reissue)

              to Tempt You/Bare Back
Click on CD cover 
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The year was 1977 and The Temptations were a mess. Yes, THE Temptations, the act that nearly defined soul music in the 60s and early 70s. But the loss of Dennis Edwards and Eddie Kendricks, combined with a series of mediocre, uninspired albums on Motown in the mid-decade left them increasingly irrelevant on R&B radio. Blaming much of the problem on dysfunction at Motown in the years following its relocation to So Cal, the quintet joined former labelmates The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and The Spinners in bolting for a new recording home. For the Tempts, it was Atlantic Records, the iconic label that made The Spinners and Aretha Franklin stars, but which by 1977 was not showing the kind of commitment to R&B radio that The Tempts had enjoyed during their decade and a half at Motown.
With the change, founding members Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin wanted to make a statement that The Temptations were a contemporary force, so they teamed with hot Philadelphia producers Baker, Harris and Young (Philly's other Big Three after Gamble, Huff and Bell) for the label debut, Hear To Tempt You, now being reissued along with the Atlantic follow-up, Bare Back, on a new Soul Music Records 2-for-1 set.
As the excellent liner notes by Kevin Goins detail, Hear to Tempt You was not an intimate collaboration between artist and producer. The Temptations, trying to assimilate new lead singer Louis Price and falsetto lead Glenn Leonard, arrived at the recording studio in New York to find the album's nine tracks completed, simply awaiting the vocals. For a group that was, itself, in a bit of disarray, this was not an ideal experience. Part of the greatness of the Motown machine was in the competitive matching of songs with groups -- and vocalists within groups -- and following with dynamic recording sessions on Grand Boulevard in Detroit.  Hear To Tempt You was clearly less tailored in its approach, and it showed in the results. Baker, Harris and Young were best known for their work with the Trammps, and parts of Hear to Tempt You sound like outtakes from a Trammps session, even though the two groups were markedly different acts.
Newcomer Leonard showed himself to be a near perfect fit for The Tempts sound, as he glided through the album's first single, "In A Lifetime," a Latin-tinged disco song, the upbeat nature of which belied the sad confession of a man to his betrayed lover ("I could never find another love like yours in a lifetime"). It was a rougher go for Price, a talented Chicago baritone who was still finding his voice (he was just 24) when he was thrust into the spotlight. So it wasn't surprising that the ballads "Can We Come And Share In Love" and "Let's Live In Peace" fell flat, in part because of Price's lack of early vocal chemistry with the group and in part because the songs just weren't very good. Fortunately, Price redeemed himself, strutting his vocal chops beautifully on "It's Time For Love," a quintessential Philly "let's all get along" dance number. The remaining group members, Richard Street, Williams and Franklin, also all had leads (unusual for a Temptations album), with Otis drawing the long straw on "Read Between The Lines," another fine dance number. As on their albums with the Trammps, the BHY production team here proved far more adept at delivering upbeat material. Nearly all the memorable cuts were disco songs -- driven by Young's legendary drum work -- with the remaining ballads being far more generic and tending to drag down the affair. 
Atlantic didn't really know what to do with the new Temptations sound, and Hear to Tempt You disappeared from radio almost as quickly as it came, dying an undeserved death that prevented even "In A Lifetime" from hitting the R&B top 10. So, for the follow up album, Bare Back, the Temptations moved to the familiar, bringing in former Motown hitmakers Brian and Eddie Holland. Unfortunately the Holland brothers of 1978 were not Holland-Dozier-Holland of 1968, and the resulting product proved - despite strong vocal performances - to be one of the more forgettable Temptations albums
Radio gave some notice to Bare Back's first single, "Ever Ready Love," a melodic ballad that sparkled with the sweet lead vocal of Leonard, who was increasingly proving to be a great asset to the group. The Hollands also leaned heavily on the always-brilliant Richard Street, and his empassioned vocals on cuts like "Touch Me Again" and the title track brought the maximum life to fairly mediocre underlying material. Conversely, Louis Price was largely placed in the background for Bare Back, getting the full lead only on "That's When You Need Love" -- a really fine vocal performance that showed much better chemistry with the group than his work on Hear....  One hidden gem late on the album was "I See My Child," a string-filled ballad that is at times a bit saccharine, but which includes simply beautiful group harmonies that make it the mostly likely "keeper" on the album. 
The failure of Bare Back to win -- or even keep -- the longtime fans of The Temptations, led the group to return, successfully, to Motown in 1980 for Power, a fine album to which Berry Gordy personally attached his name as producer and which thrust The Tempts back into the top 10.  
In the end, Hear to Tempt You and Bare Back are unusual historical artifacts.  They mark the most confused period in the history of the greatest male vocal group of all time.  That confusion certainly seeped into the music, which was both uneven and even occasionally unrecognizable as belonging to the Temptations. But, as with any period in The Temptations recorded history, this 2-for-1 collection has enough high points to make it an interesting find for the group's millions of fans.  While the albums, long unavailable in any form, are on the whole certainly not essential, they include enough rare, fine performances to make them hard for classic soul music fans - or devoted Tempations fans like this reviewer - to resist. Selectively Recommended.
By Chris Rizik

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