Tuesday, 6 October 2020

The Isley Brothers - Behind A Painted Smile (1966-1972)

This Old Heart Of Mine (1966)


Nowhere To Run/Stop! In The Name Of Love/This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)/Take Some Time Out For Love/I Guess I'll Always Love You/Baby Don't You Do It/Who Could Ever Doubt My Love/Put Yourself In My Place/I Hear A Symphony/Just Ain't Enough Love/There's No Love Left/Seek And You Shall Find        

This is, in my opinion, the first really good Isley Brothers' album for Motown. They had, of course, been knocking around for many years before this. Three albums had come out before this, dating back to 1959. Motown albums were strange beasts in the mid-sixties, let's be honest, often being a vehicle for hits, or including one side of great songs and one of "supper club" standards to rein in the "adult" audience. This one is not quite either of those, but, alongside the massive hits it does include several of the Isleys' takes on Motown songs made famous be other Motown acts. They do them all superbly, however, matching or even outdoing the originals.

Unlike albums from The Four Tops, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and even sometimes The Temptations from the same period, there are no cheesy "fillers" on this album i.e. songs from popular stage musicals of Beatles covers. It is "proper" Motown all the way. For that reason, this album can be considered quite a credible one. The sound on the latest release is in stereo and is pretty good overall.

There has been considerable fuss made about the fact that the album's cover featured a completely incongruous picture of a blonde white couple on a beach, something you didn't even get on a Beach Boys album. I'm so not sure it was the awful racial slur it has been made out to be, it is simply an utterly ludicrous, irrelevant cover. Of course, a picture of The Isley Brothers would have been eminently preferable, but if it had been a similar drawn effort to those which appeared on three Four Tops albums, maybe not. Check them out - they're dreadful! (The offenders are "Four Tops Second Album", "Reach Out" and "Yesterday's Dreams").

The Isleys' cover of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas' iconic Nowhere To Run seems to use the same Funk Brothers' basic rhythm track, although some bits are different - some jangly, Eastern-sounding guitar bits for starters. Martha's cut was just so good, however, that although this one is perfectly acceptable, you can't help but compare it. The same sort of applies to Diana Ross & The SupremesStop! In The Name Of Love but the Isleys' version is a bit more punchy, vocally. Maybe it was not the best idea, though, to begin the album with two cover versions of songs everyone already knew from other artists. It didn't do much for creating an identity for the Isleys. The next track did the exact opposite, however. It was the peerless, irresistibly catchy, timeless This Old Heart Of Mine.

Take Some Time Out For Love is an upbeat stomper, with some serious falsetto vocals. The album's other big hit was the typically mid-sixties Motown sound of I Guess I'll Always Love You. It is full of great vocals and that trademark beat. Marvin Gaye's Baby Don't Do It is covered superbly, with a groovy drum break. Who Could Ever Doubt My Love is a regular Motown track from the period. The production on this one is a bit grainy.

Put Yourself In My Place was also done by Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Elgins and Chris Clark. The Isleys' version is possibly the best. I Hear A Symphony was, of course, a huge hit for Diana Ross & The Supremes. This is also an excellent version, with an impressive, soulful vocal. Just Ain't Enough Love is an infectious Isleys original. There's No Love Left is a wonderful slice of Motown magic. A true underrated gem. Seek And You Shall Find has a gloriously deep, rumbling bass rhythm. Like its predecessor, it is (comparatively) undiscovered gold.




Soul On The Rocks (1967)


Got To Have You Back/That's The Way Love Is/Whispers/Tell Me It's Just A Rumour Baby/One Too Many Heartaches/It's Out Of The Question/Why When Love Is Gone/Save Me From This Misery/Little Miss Sweetness/Good Things/Catching Up On Time/Behind A Painted Smile   

This was, amazingly, The Isley Brothers' last album for the Motown label. Having been one of the label's leading lights from the outset, for some unfathomable reason, the in-house backing they were given decreased year upon year and they ended up disillusioned and to a certain extent, going through the motions, some say. Personally, I think this album is great, however. It would take them until 1973 to fully reinvent themselves again, though, which they did to great effect.

The material on here may have been overlooked somewhat but it certainly did well on the Northern Soul circuit. The Isley Brothers were one of the main Motown Northern Soul groups.
               
Got To Have You Back is a lively, buzzy guitar-driven stomper to open with, with a few typically 1967 Eastern influences in its guitar sound. That's The Way Love Is, also done by Gladys KnightMarvin Gaye and The Temptations, is performed here with a great, floor-shaking vitality. Excellent stuff. A real Motown Northern Soul number. Whispers is another buzzy number and Tell Me It's Just A Rumour Baby is a Northern Soul classic right down to its stomping foundations. It is included on several Northern Soul compilations.

One Too Many Heartaches is a lovely, Smokey Robinson-esque melodic ballad, with real hints of The Temptations and Jimmy Ruffin in it too. It's Out Of The Question is another undervalued gem. Just superb. Love it. I have seen some commentors say that this is an album full of half-hearted material. Far from it. It is far the superior offering to The Four Tops albums which were reduced to cheesy easy-listening covers on the old "side two". This album is solid, catchy, quality numbers all the way. Another one is the stonking Why When Love Is Gone. It should have been a huge hit, not just on the Northern Soul scene.

Save Me From This Memory almost has a Temptations psychedelic soul feeling to its intro and the vocal is outstanding. Little Miss Sweetness is a brassy, soulful number. Good Things uses that guitar sound again. Catching Up On Time has such a Northern Soul intro and then we get the classic Behind A Painted Smile, which, of course, uses the buzzy guitar sound at its most well known with a superb, gritty riff. This song is one of the best Motown singles of all time, no question. This album is far better than many would have you believe. If you love Motown you will love this.




It's Your Thing (1969)


I Know Who You Been Socking It To/Somebody Been Messin'/Save Me/I Must Be Losing My Touch/Feel Like The World/It's Your Thing/Give The Women What They Want/Love Is What You Make It/Don't Give It Away/He's Got Your Love             

This was The Isley Brothers' first album after leaving Motown. In 1969, groups like The Temptations and solo artists like Isaac Hayes were showing that soul artists could put out credible albums, as opposed to ones made up simply of just singles and cover versions. The Isley Brothers got in on the burgeoning urban funky soul thing as pioneered by Sly & The Family Stone and James Brown. This was their first stab of going funky, brother. It was a success and, notably, it still retained some of that Isley Brothers flair and musical creativity too. It is only twenty-six minutes long, however, which is short, even for the time.
                      
I Know Who You Been Socking It To introduced us to the new, funky Isleys, with a deep, chugging slice of urban, brass-powered funk. The same brass dominates the Sly Stone-esque Somebody Been Messin'Save Me slows the pace down on a soulful ballad. Those Stax-style Memphis horns still drive the track along, Otis Redding fashion. It has a great soul vocal. I Must Be Losing My Touch is a wonderful, stomping number with a pounding, bassy sound and infectious beat. Feel Like The World is a slower tempo soul ballad.

It's Your Thing is the best known track, one that appears one several funk compilations. The Temptations covered it on their Puzzle People album too. It has great hooks, both vocally and brass-wise. Give The Women What They Want is a big, rumbling piece of contemporary funk. Once again, it is thumping and brassy. The women need love, by the way.

Love Is What You Make It is a sweet soul number to cool down the ambience a little. Don't Give It Away has an intoxicating, funky rhythm and Ernie Isley starts to me himself known on guitar throughout.

He's Got Your Love ends on a punchy note with an upbeat, grinding soul number. Again, there are snatches of rock guitar riffs which give a hint at the future. This album started "phase two" for the Isleys, where they threw off the Motown shackles and became a serious group in their own right. Not that they hadn't been, their music had been great, but you felt that here they were doing what they wanted to do.

The instrumental versions on the extended remaster are excellent. The sound quality on the remaster of the original album is ok, but not truly outstanding, as the original source tapes probably still contain flaws.


The Brothers: Isley (1969)


I Turned You On/Vacuum Cleaner/I've Got To Get Myself Together/Was It Good To You?/The Blacker The Berrie/My Little Girl/Get Down Off The Train/Holding On/Feels Like The World 

Coming only four months after their first album since leaving MotownThe Isley Brothers continued on their journey into soul/funk as opposed to soul/pop. This a is most Stax-influenced cooker of an album. Again, it has been considerably overlooked, which is a shame as both the sound quality and the material is excellent. What is with the bizarre cover though? The brothers are pictured in shocking pink monks' habits and hoods, with bright white ties. Very odd.
                               
I Turned You On is a funky, Stax-esque opener in the Rufus Thomas style. Vacuum Cleaner - "my love is like a vacuum cleaner...", despite its strange lyric, is a pounding, cookin' horn-driven piece of soul/funk. I've Got To Get Myself Together is a delicious, Memphis-style ballad. Was It Good To You? sees the punchy, brassy soul return. The Blacker The Berrie (sic) is a kind of reverse discrimination in praise of dark-toned ladies. It is full of sexual innuendoes about eating fruit. Musically, it is excellent, with some impressive saxophone.

My Little Girl is a very Otis Redding-influenced number with a bit of Drifters soul in the vocal, and Gary "US" Bonds for that matter. It is an excellent piece of horn-powered soul. Get Down Off The Train is also very Redding-like in its vocal delivery. The upbeat Holding On is fabulously funky and a joy to listen to. Feels Like The World is a bit of an unremarkable ballad to end on but that doesn't detract from the fact that this is an excellent album of late sixties soul. If you like soul from that era, this is well worth checking out.

Judy White's version of Vacuum Cleaner which is included as a bonus track on the latest edition is simply superb, as is Rudy & Judy's I've Got To Get Myself Together.


Get Into Something (1970)


Get Into Something/Freedom/Take Inventory/Keep On Doin'/Girls Will Be Girls/I Need You So/If He Can You Can/I Got To Find Me One/Beautiful/Bless Your Heart   

The third in the excellent run of post-Motown Isley Brothers albums. This one has the old "side one" being largely comprised of brassy, horn-driven funky soul, while "side two" serves up some slower pace ballads. This practice of having two distinct ambiences to each side was something that would be continued on their albums in the mid/late seventies as funk mixed with sweet soul.
               
Get Into Something is a seven minute funk workout, the first real sign of the direction the Isley Brothers' music would take as the seventies progressed. Yes, they had done shorter funky songs before, but this was an extended groove. It features a killer drum solo bit at the end and a bit where they say "let the bass come in..." and it duly does, rumblingly. Freedom has a jaunty, swinging brassy rhythm to it and a jazzy feel to it. Take Inventory is a superb slice of bassy funk. Just wonderful. This is the Isleys at their funkiest. Actually, just as cookin' is the thumping Keep On Doin'. For 1970, this is ground-breaking in its funkiness.

 

The funk comes to an end, unfortunately, with the slightly throwaway, cheesy Girls Will Be Girls, despite its lovely deep bass sound and uplifting brass. It improves as it progresses, to be fair. Now for the change in pace as the ballads come in. I Need You So is a nice one, but I am missing the funk already. Hold on a minute! Is that a wah-wah guitar I hear? Indeed it is, and we get a bit of Sly & the Family Stone-style stuff in If He Can You Can. This is a great track. I Got To Find Me One is back to the ballads, as is Beautiful, although the latter has a catchy little backbeat to it.

Bless Your Heart is, however infectious it undoubtedly is, a blatant re-write of It's Your Thing from the previous year. No matter, this has still been a stonker of an album, although one of two very different halves.




Givin' It Back (1971)


Ohio/Machine Gun/Fire And Rain/Lay Lady Lay/Spill The Wine/Nothing To Do But Today/Cold Bologna/Love The One You're With     

It was a bold move for The Isley Brothers, in 1971, to release an album of cover versions of white artists' largely folk/country rock material and giving it their own unique soulful, funky stamp. While white artists often covered black music, the reverse didn't happen as often, apart from Motown acts endlessly covering The Beatles, of course. This was something somewhat different and is most interesting for it. Pictured on the cover, in sepia tones, with acoustic guitars, sitting on some farmyard hay bales, it looks like an album by The Band, so there was considerable surprise even in this.

The album kicks off with Neil Young's protest song concerning the shooting of four students by police in 1970 at Kent University, Ohio, delivered against a searing backing of electric guitar and deep funky bass and drums. It merges into the hard-hitting spoken words and rat-a-tat drumming of Jimi Hendrix's Machine Gun. This is adventurous stuff. Up there with What's Going On and material from The TemptationsCurtis Mayfield and The Undisputed Truth for social awareness. You cannot underestimate the power and effect of this. The album is worth getting for this track alone. Check out Ernie Isley's guitar too. Stunning and very atmospheric.

James Taylor's Fire And Rain is given the Isley treatment and it has a bit of a Summer Breeze feel about it in places, while Bob Dylan's Lay Lady Lay is extended to a full ten minutes and, although it has a good, laid-back soulful vocal, for some reason I feel the Isleys' talents are best served on other material and I much prefer the original. It goes on far too long, the title repeated ad nauseam and doesn't quite get there for me. Not that the vocal isn't beautiful at times and the bass line too, for that matter.


Spill The Wine has a jaunty Caribbean-style rhythm to it. It is a complete mood change to the previous track (a new side on the original album). It has a quirky appeal to it. It was originally done by Eric Burdon & War. I like this one. Stephen StillsNothing To Do But Today is given a staccato, funky beat and a jazzy improvised vocal, although this starts to grate a bit by the end.

Bill Withers' star had not quite risen at this point, but it was certainly on the rise and he appears here in his own Cold Bologna, which appeared on his 1973 live album as Cold Baloney. The song is given a quirky, rhythmic makeover, although Withers' sparser version is probably the better one. Those acoustic guitars from the cover make their first real appearance on another Stills song, the country rock of Love The One You're With.

Personally, I much prefer the albums that were released either side of this one - Get Into Something and Brother, Brother, Brother. I admire the Isleys for the concept of the album, but it doesn't quite work for me. I feel they are out of their comfort zone just a little bit. I know that is a big thing to say, because this is still a seriously good album, but that is how I feel about it. It is their funky soul all the way for me, not singing "lay lady lay" for ten minutes. Sorry, many will feel that is sacrilegious, I know. It is a grower of an album, though, maybe therein lies its strength.


Brother, Brother, Brother (1972)


Brother, Brother/Put A Little Love In Your Heart/Sweet Seasons/Keep On Walkin'/Work To Do/Pop That Thang/Lay Away/It's Too Late/Love Put Me On The Corner          

This was a soulful album from The Isley Brothers, and it was the last in their series of late sixties/early seventies transitional albums from Motown pop via soul to funk. The album tapped into the laid-back aware grooves of artists like Marvin Gaye and The O'Jays. Of course, the title, "Brother, Brother, Brother" was a quote from Gaye's What's Going On. The sound quality is also excellent on this little-mentioned, but really enjoyable album.
                   
Carole King's Brother, Brother is given a soulful What's Going On treatment. Jackie DeShannon's Put A Little Love In Your Heart is perfect early seventies pop/soul. Sweet Seasons is a delicious Northern Soul meets the Staple Singers groove with a Curtis Mayfield-style falsetto vocal in places. There is a hint of Paul Weller's Out Of The Sinking to it, if that doesn't sound too far-fetched. The track morphs seamlessly into the effortless, appealing gospelly funk of Keep On Walkin'. In turn, this merges into the funky soul of Work To Do, which has a few hints of later material, such as on the 3 + 3 album.

Pop That Thang is as solidly funky as the title may imply. The groove on so many of the tracks on this album is irresistible. Lay Away continues in the same vein, one of classic early seventies funk/soul. These Isley Brothers albums from this period are really quite unfairly overlooked. I know I keep labouring the point, but this album is a pleasure from beginning to end, if you like this sort of thing, that is.

As well as punchy funky soul, the early seventies was known for extended, slowed-down sensual numbers. The mood is therefore cooled down for late-night with a deep, soulful cover of Carole King's It's Too Late, slowed down to walking pace, featuring some killer Ernie Isley guitar interjections. It has an Isaac Hayes feel to its slow rhythm, also in its ten minutes of running time. Love Put Me On The Corner is another lengthy and very Hayes-esque slow burner, with a deep bass line and excellent vocal. While these last two tracks are impressive slow soul numbers, it is, for me, the funky vibrancy of the earlier material that really makes the album.



2 comments:

  1. I always liked those early 70s albums. But usually the cover versions of all those songs they did by rock artists were the only ones that I liked. Their own songwriting wasn't nearly as good, except for That Lady, which was actually an older song that they did before. Living in the Life and Harvest for the World are pretty good songs written by them too. But The Doobie Brothers and Neil Young and Carole King and Jackie DeShannon and James Taylor ones are the ones I really remember most. But probably it's just that they were already familiar to me so I like them more. Besides Summer Breeze my favorite one is Carole King's Brother Brother. It's really beautiful.

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  2. Yep, they did some good stuff. Lots of albums too, I was amazed how many there were.

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