Picks and Pans Review: Motown

UPDATED 03/22/2004 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/22/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

Michael McDonald

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When it comes to Motown classics, ain't nothin' like the real thing. Stevie is Stevie, Marvin is Marvin, the Supremes are the Supremes. In considering himself worthy to take on the R & B greats, blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald risks being told that's just what a fool believes. But McDonald's first album for the legendary label finds him happily taking it to the streets with a fitting tribute to Motown mastery. As frontman of the Doobie Brothers, the singer had already reworked such lesser-known Motown songs as Kim Weston's "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)" and Marvin Gaye's "Little Darling (I Need You)." Here he applies his distinctive husky baritone to golden oldies like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Both of those songs were recorded by Gaye, as were five other tunes here, including "Distant Lover," to which McDonald brings the appropriate sense of sexual urgency, and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)," which, with its smooth, chilled-out arrangement, is one of the few covers that is not faithfully rendered here. McDonald's other obvious Motown hero is Stevie Wonder, whose work is revisited on four tracks. On a rousing remake of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," McDonald demonstrates that, at 51, his pipes have not been diminished by the years; he even capably handles the tricky delivery of "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)," bringing the love song to its gospel-charged climax. Although McDonald's voice shines throughout, the cheesy background vocals on "I Want You" make for a rare misstep. But McDonald nails a blues-hued take on the Temptations' heartbreak ballad "Since I Lost My Baby," rivaling Luther Vandross's 1982 cover of the song. By the disc's closer, a jazzy version of Wonder's cautionary drug tale "Too High," you'll be jonesing for the Motown sequel that McDonald plans to record later this year.


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