Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The Four Tops - On Top (1966)


  

Released July 1966

Motown albums in the mid-sixties were strange things, often made up with a couple of huge hit singles and several Beatles, Frank Sinatra and easy listening "supper club" covers. The Four Tops' albums suffered considerably from that at times, and this one is one of those. It is a positively "Jekyll and Hyde" album of two distinct sides.  It certainly has its ordinary points, on the original "side two" when Motown followed their policy of trying to draw in more "adult" audiences, not just the teen pop market, by including covers of popular songs.  This was referred to as "crossover". Personally, like most people, I preferred Motown groups singing Motown songs. To see this album reflect that questionable policy was a shame, because the first two Four Tops albums had been credible soul albums full of Holland-Dozier-Holland songs. Not so this one, it was two distinct sides, one of classic HDH songs, one of schmaltzy covers.

Now for the good stuff - it begins with the wonderful "I Got A Feeling", one of my favourite songs (although the definitive version is by Barbara Randolph, for me). It is still a great track, however. "Brenda" is a soulful ballad with some nice stereo sound, particularly on the percussion. It was a quirk of Motown that while nearly all of their single releases, even into the seventies, were in mono, but the albums were in stereo. Certainly the current releases of the albums are in stereo. Very good it sounds too. Up next is the marvellous, evocative "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever". The backing is superb and Levi Stubbs' vocal sublime. This was a hit single. A minor hit was the pounding "Shake Me, Wake Me (When It's Over)". "Until You Love Someone" was not a single but could easily have been one. It is a convincing Motown (Holland-Dozier-Holland) song. This excellent, original "side one" ends with another HDH number, "There's No Love Left" is another melodic, driving and supremely soulful, uplifting song. This certainly was a great six-song run, showcasing this great vocal group at their very best. The album is worth it for this barnstorming side alone.

I'm not sure how many of the teenagers who bought this album flipped over to "side two". This is where the quality erodes somewhat and the covers begin. It is almost as if this side of the record was sung by a different group completely. "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" is a night, breezy, jazzy easy listening piece of fluff. Utterly different in ambience to what had been before. The music is still immaculately played, of course. Time for a Beatles cover? You bet. It's "Michelle" and it is pretty cheesy, I have to say. Unessential. The Tops continue to sound like a barber shop meets upbeat easy listening jazz on Cole Porter's "In The Still Of The Night". I would struggle to identify this as The Four Tops if I hadn't known. "Bluesette" has me seriously questioning if it is the same group as had delivered such a pulsating first part of the album. "Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars" doesn't buck the trend, although the closer, "Then", has some definite Motown-ish stylings in its vocal delivery, unsurprisingly, as Smokey Robinson was one of the songwriters.

A very definite album of two halves that exemplified an unfortunate trend.

B- for side one
C- for side two

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