For those who don't know, Otis Williams is the group leader and the only original member. He is a 2nd tenor/baritone, and many suggest that his voice is the key to their sound. To this day, fans have mixed feelings about Otis, blaming him for the frequent line-up changes over the years. But others (myself included) respect him for starting the group and keeping them together for all these years.
Before I start my review, I'll have to reveal the line-up for people who are unfamiliar with the present Temptations. The group has always had the same format--5 singers with unique styles, any one of whom can take a lead. In addition to Williams, the group consists of..
Bruce Williamson-- The growling baritone, filling the shoes of the late David Ruffin.
Terry Weeks-- 2nd Tenor/Baritone, serves as a secondary lead singer and youngest member of the group.
Ron Tyson--The group's 1st Tenor/Falsetto
Joe Herndon--Bass Singer. He sounds identical to the Temptations' original bass man, Melvin Franklin.
Those masculine harmonies sound the same no matter what singers enter and exit the group.
Now for the music. Most of the songs here are adult contemporary R&B, with some throwbacks to traditional soul.
A Change has Come-- The music on this celebratory track is a fusion of hard rock and funk, while the lyrics express the joy of Barack Obama becoming president. Bruce Williamson takes the lead, singing the track in his usual aggressive style. Not a bad song, but not a great one either. The great music begins to emerge on the next track.
One Kind Of Lady-- Here is where the album really picks up. This is the polished, melodic form of R&B that is missing from today's radio. Bruce Williamson finally proves that he can sing without screaming, as he cushions his raspy vocals on this track. Williamson is counter-pointed by Terry Weeks on lead, and the group's harmonies are as gorgeous as ever. There's a synthesized horn solo towards the end of the song. The song has everything going for it. This track has a smooth groove and gets repeated listens from this reviewer.
***** (5 Stars)
Let Me Catch Your Diamonds-- This ballad is another gem led by Terry and Bruce. Again we have synthesized horn arrangements. You can't help but notice the beautiful piano chords during the verses. The huskiness of Bruce's voice gives the delicate song an edge. In fact, his passionate vocals remind me of GC Cameron, who preceded him as lead singer. The harmonies are excellent as usual, but this time around, Ron blesses the listener with his sweet falsetto ad-libs.
**** (4 1/2 Stars)
Hold Me--This track is opened with a narration by the purring bass singer, who sounds almost identical to Barry White. We have another ballad here, but like the previous one, it's very charming. Terry sings the lead, while Ron tackles the bridge. Otis does a rap, and even sings a bit of lead towards the end. Again, we've got another smooth track. Soul music at its best.
**** (4 Stars)
Warm Summer Night--This is a dance number in the tradition of R. Kelly's Step In The Name Of Love. Ron sings the lead, often alternately between his natural head voice and falsetto. His voice has a silky smoothness reminiscent of Ronald Isley. There are steel drums on this track, giving it a rare Caribbean feel. There's also a charming piano solo. This song has a lot of alluring qualities. The only setback is that the entire group isn't singing the backgrounds here--it's only Ron and Odeen.
**** (4 Stars)
First Kiss--The track opens with Terry hitting on a woman sitting by herself. The amusing dialogue is followed up by the song itself. There are hints of autotune in Terry's voice, which was unnecessary.
Fortunately, things pick up a bit when Bruce's earthy voice enters the track on the second voice, sounding more than a little like David Ruffin. Terry pushes his voice into a breathy falsetto on the bridge. It sounds to me like Bruce brings the best out of Terry. Good tune, but not an excellent one.
*** (3 Stars)
Shawty-- It's a nice song despite the ridiculous title. It's also much better than other R&B tracks of this day and age, and miles above most of the songs on recent Temptations albums. Terry takes the microphone again for this one. This is a smooth groove for a nice summer night.
*** (3 1/2 Stars)
Still Here With Me-- This song has something of a lonely feel to it.
I could imagine the group recording a song like this during the years when Ali-Ollie Woodson was the lead singer. Terry doesn't disappoint on the lead vocals. He's returned to using the Donny Hathaway-esque tenor that made me a fan of his back in 1998. The group's harmonies make a powerful statement as well. There's an excellent saxophone on this track, giving the song a jazz vibe.
*** (3 & 1/2 Stars)
Soul Music--Terry and Bruce tackle the lead on this one. I personally don't care at all for this one. It isn't memorable to these ears. However, I love the bass singer's Don Cornelius impersonation. "Love...Peace..And SOOOOUUULLL!!!"
* (1 Star)
Woman--Ron Tyson sings the lead in his honey-laden falsetto. It's a relaxing tune. Many critics have pointed this song out for having the best hit potential on this album. Although it's a nice song, I don't agree with that. There are better songs available in this collection, but this one does rate somewhere among the best. Like Warm Summer Nights, only Tyson and the bass singer provide the background vocals. Where was the rest of the group? The Ron Tyson songs in this album are basically Ron Tyson solo tracks with an assist from the bass vocalist on backgrounds.
*** (3 1/2 Stars)
Listen Up-- A rough mix demo of this track leaked to the internet long before the album's release. I didn't enjoy the song, as it attempts to be a modern Ball of Confusion. But now that I can hear the finished product, I like it a lot more. There's more vocals and instruments here than on the demo I heard last year. Bruce sings his behind off on this one. The harmonies are gripping as well. Listen up.
*** (3 Stars)
Going Back Home-- I really like this one. It's an excellent closer for the album. Terry brings the song's lyrics to life. From beginning to end, this one is a great ride. Wonderful song.
***(3 1/2 Stars)
In addition to the great music, there are a few things about this album that surprised me.
New Bass Singer?
First off, the group's bass singer, Joe Herndon, was not featured on this album. I heard that he was ill. He was replaced by Odeen Mays, who played keyboards for Kool and The Gang. I should have known something was up because when a rough mix demo of Listen Up leaked to the internet almost two years ago, I noticed that "Joe" sounded strange. He sounded a little "lazy," almost as if the other Tempts dragged him out of bed to complete the song. His voice was deep as usual, but lacking gusto.
I figured that maybe he just wasn't putting his all into it since it was an unfinished demo. Now I know why he sounded a little strange--it was a different guy!!
It's doubtful that casual listeners will observe the difference. However, I think some fans will notice the change when they hear the opening of Hold Me, where Odeen gives the opening narration. When he speaks, he sounds like Barry White, not Joe Herndon.
The funny thing is that Odeen Mays isn't even a real bass singer. From what I've heard on his other recordings, he's a tenor. But he's got enough range to sing those canyon-deep bass vocals, so I can hear why he was hired--his voice proved to be a fitting bottom for the group's trademarks harmonies. I can't help but wonder if Joe Herndon will receive royalties for an album he didn't record?
Welcome back, Terry
Terry Weeks has returned to singing in a tenor voice, something else that makes this album special. On recent albums, he tried to sing in an earthy baritone voice that just isn't him. He impressed me when he made his Temptation debut on Phoenix Rising, where his singing reminded me of Donny Hathaway. He's returned to that style. Thank you, Terry.
Ron Still Has It...Kinda
Ron Tyson's falsetto voice has been "hit or miss" during the last 10 years. On some live performances, he sounds great. But in other shows, you can tell that his age is catching up with him. On the recordings, he still has the goods, no doubt because of countless takes to get his vocals perfect. On this album, he croons nicely, but uses his falsetto a little less than normal, preferring to sing in a "safe zone" by employing his natural tenor a little more often. I saw the Tempts in concert back in 2007, and Ron sounded great. It's sad to listen to his falsetto decline, though.
This was a terrific album---their best in years!! The sound here was a throwback to Phoenix Rising and Ear-Resistible, which are two of my favorite Temptations albums of recent years. (The latter album won them a grammy). The group hasn't been the same since the dismissal of Bo Henderson. Bo and Terry had young voices with an old school influence, so they had an appeal to both generations of Temptations fans. Former bass singer Harry McGilberry left the Tempts in 2003 and died three years later. He had more charisma and a stronger voice than Joe Herndon, the current bass singer. Since Harry and Bo left, the albums have suffered badly, both in sales and quality. That's why I was in no hurry to give this one a listen, but it was certainly a breath of fresh air. If the group keeps making music like this, they'll have more chart success. I hope lightning can strike twice on their next release.
From left to right: GC Cameron, Ron Tyson, Otis Williams, Joe Herndon and Terry Weeks.