Some great voices are instruments of artistry. Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye — these are all composers, pop artistes; their legendary vocals just one element of their equally legendary visions. Other great voices, however, are something else entirely: they, themselves, are the instruments. Otis Williams belongs decidedly to the second category. A founding member of legendary soul quintet the Temptations, his powerful, melodic baritone sounded great on classics like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Just My Imagination”…but it was arguably just as well-served when Rick James used it for songs like “Super Freak” and “Standing at the Top,” a single brick in the wall of Mr. Mary Jane’s ’80s-revamped Motown Sound. Why? It has nothing to do with quality (though for the record, Street Songs is nothing to sniff at); it’s just that Williams’ voice is more remarkable for its tonal, purely musical qualities than for its association with any specific style or standard of quality.
It’s for this reason that Reflections, the 61st album (!) to be released by Williams under the Temptations moniker, can be by turns both a success and a failure. When the material is good — and as a collection of classic Motown covers, better material could hardly be found — it’s a pleasant nostalgia trip. Williams (the only living original member of the Temptations) still sounds great, and he’s certainly chosen functional replacements for the classic line-up: current supporters Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, GC Cameron, and Joe Herndon may not have quite the same vocal alchemy as the Temptations we know and love but every time their voices blend together it’s a reasonable enough facsimile to sweep this reviewer momentarily off his feet. The downside, however, is that Reflections is purely a vocalist’s record; it has neither the creative spark nor the exciting newness of the best soul music, and so it stands and falls on the strength of its arrangements alone.
Which is very, very bad news, because these arrangements are oldies revival by numbers. “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved to You)” sounds a bit like Otis and friends are singing along to a particularly lame karaoke tape, and it isn’t alone; “Try It Baby” tries to emulate big-band jazz with egregiously fake-sounding synth horns and strings. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” meanwhile, sounds like lite R&B circa 1994. And “Don’t Leave Me This Way” could be most bizarre of all — not just a straight cover of Thelma Houston’s disco hit, but one which actually sounds more dated than the original. Predictably, the music is best when it’s kept on a classicist bent, as on “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and opener “Can I Get a Witness,” which channel something of the passion and ebullience of the Motown Sound even if they do fall inevitably short. But if the best parts of a 2006 record by the Temptations are when it sounds sort of like a 1966 record by the Temptations, then it has to be asked: what exactly is the point?
The answer, of course, is that this isn’t the type of record which is meant for critical dissection. It’s meant for fans of the current line-up of the Temptations, not purists; fans who probably just want to pick up a CD as a souvenier at one of their many shows on the oldies circuit. And for those people, Reflections might be just fine. But for me, I listen to this record and all I can hear is what could have been. Imagine Otis Williams in the hands of a truly fresh modern producer — a Pharrell or a Danger Mouse, doing the same thing for a legendary voice that Rick James did twenty years ago. Or better yet, where’s Rick Rubin when you need him? How about a real back-to-basics soul record, more stripped-down even than the glossy Motown which made the Temptations famous? Just pipe dreams, maybe; and with only one original member in the group, frankly it might be better if Williams just put his recording career to rest after all.
But whatever side of the fence you stand, on one thing I think we can all agree: Otis Williams has done his bit. He’s been a Temptation for over twice as many years as I, for one, have been alive, and in those years he’s been involved in some of the most seminal records in the history of popular music. So if he wants to keep making records with arrangements that sound like Casio keyboard presets, who am I to tell him no? Let’s let the guy make a little money…he’s definitely earned it.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins