Monday, January 12, 2009

CD Review: Boyz II Men (Motown - A Journey Through Hitsville USA)

THIRD world, SECOND class citizens, FIRST to go...

A year’s worth of blogging later, I finally roll up my proverbial sleeves and bring myself to finishing this CD review of one of my favorite bands.

In this age of the all-access internet, where one can buy or download just about anything, particularly music, it truly means something to me to want to run off to a record bar and grab myself a physical “hot off the press” (at that time) copy of the latest effort by the “Boyz.”

When I finally get my hands on a copy, I saw the label “Special Edition, Philippine Release.” I didn’t know what to expect. Back in the day, a “special Philippine edition” usually meant an additional track to try and push a disc to sell more. So I eagerly peel off the cellophane and look forward to some great music in the form of wonderful new renditions of Motown classics by some of the best voices in the business, some insightful liner notes, and maybe an Easter egg or two.

Err… half of one out of three ain’t so bad, right?

The music sounds as smooth as the Boyz have always been. Given that we live in a packaged-popstar era, the glaring reality of the amount of musical talent in Boyz II Men makes one wish they sold more records just to reacquaint kids nowadays with what real music should sound like.

But since this is/was a new Boyz II Men record, I was expecting to pop the disc in and be blown away. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as blown away as I expected to be.

"...I’m always still left wondering who the heck’s doing the bass vocal overdubs on most of the songs..."

Okay, to be fair about it, Boyz II Men are still individually the finest collection of singing voices caught on tape (or in these days “audio file…”). After 2001’s relatively unsuccessful “Full Circle” CD, I remember mentioning to fellow Boyz worshipper and guest blogger, Carlo E. R. Balingit that the Boyz can just grab a bunch of old tunes, remake them in their distinctive Boyz II Men style and those would sell like hotcakes. (Anyone remember “II’s” “Yesterday?”)

Apparently, someone up there heard me. And they released 2003’s “Throwback.” The talent was evident in every track. But also showing was a certain level of fatigue. The song selection on that album wasn’t bad, but it lacked the single giant-sized remade hit to carry the album through the glass “has-been” ceiling.

So here comes the literally great Motown songbook, and what do Randy Jackson and the Boyz do? They go karaoke on the damn thing. Sure, nobody harmonizes like Shawn, Nate and Wanya (would’ve been better with Mike McCary). But given the fact that these great songs were already timeless as they were, the worst thing Boyz II Men could do with these things was practically copy them and just throw in a tiny of bit harmonized flourish.

Sure, there’s “Ribbon in the Sky,” (which got nominated for ‘Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals’ in the 2008 Grammies), their new arrangement of their very own “End of the Road,” and the damn cool-but-not-too-different second half of the Commodores’ “Easy.” But I was hoping to catch something more refreshingly new and different renditions like the way Az-Yet rearranged “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” or some new phrasing like Babyface’s “If” or Seal’s “popified” “Puff the Magic Dragon (both from the album “For Our Children, Too”), or even All-4-One’s “I Swear.”

As evidence of the almost miniscule rearrangements made by the Boyz on the songs, here’s a rough patch up of Hitsville’s “I’ll Be There” back to back with the Four Tops’ original version.

Okay, so the music was good but ultimately underwhelming, I’m always still left wondering who the heck’s doing the bass vocal overdubs on most of the songs. I mean, far as I know, Mike left the group due to scoliosis, not because he couldn’t sing. So does that mean Mike’s guesting on the sessions?

But one has to scour the net for info, since the “Special Philippines Edition” should actually be called the “Special Philippines Economy Edition” and has all the fan value of a pirated disc from Quiapo. There were no liner notes, no funky photos, no dedications and all those little things that made buying CD’s vs. buying cassettes more rewarding. Just a little slip of paper for the basic purpose of having a fucking cover.

Considering that I’ve already sort of begun the practice of purchasing music online either via iTunes or (I bought Jason Mraz’s entire third album online), I found it utterly pointless to have gotten a copy of the Boyz’s disc only to find that the only thing I brought were audio tracks.

But ultimately, I’m a fan. So I expect I will continue supporting them even after this less than tummy-filling release. I would only heartily recommend this release to a fellow die-hard fan. But for anyone else (from some other planet) who may find themselves just being introduced to the Boyz, please grab a copy of “CooleyHighHarmony,” “II,” “Evolution,” “Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya” (in that order) to catch the Boyz at the best of their sound.

Here’s to hoping the next album takes more risks.
(First draft dated 12/22/07, 12:26PM)

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