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Sunday, April 30, 2006

It's the same old songs

As a card-carrying boomer, I've been enjoying the classic Motown singles for 40 years or more now. There's something about the music of your adolescent days that sticks with you forever -- at least it does for me -- and I count myself extremely lucky to have the Motown sounds among the ones I still carry around with me, with the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, and their contemporaries. Want to hear me sing Edwin Starr's "25 Miles"? I didn't think so -- but I could.

Having had decades to collect the entire Motown catalog, I now have at my fingertips (everybody say yeah) nearly every single that company produced during its heyday, and there are times when a browse through those songs really brings me back to life. Just the first few bars of so many of those numbers can turn my head around.

One downside of playing the tunes over and over is that the recordings can become fossilized. When you know the song and the singers' interpretation so well that you could repeat it in your sleep, sometimes you don't completely listen to it any more. You hear it, it evokes memories, it stirs the soul, but the mind no longer fully processes the sounds of real human voices or real instruments.

Fortunately for me, the last few years have provided a number of wonderful opportunities to listen to the old voices with new ears. The first was the movie about the Funk Brothers -- the Motown house band. It was called "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," and I blogged about it here. If you are a Motown fan and you have not seen this, you must drop what you are doing and get on the trail of the DVD. After viewing it, you will never listen to your Motown collection the same way again (particularly the bass lines).

Another nice treat these days is the fact that whoever has control of the master tapes of the Motown singles has begun to let outsiders remix them. There's a Four Tops box set out there now called "Fourever" that's got a number of remixed versions of the great songs by that group. For example, on "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," the reverb has been eliminated from the lead vocal, and you can hear the drummer -- Pistol, maybe -- count off the start. Levi Stubbs's voice sounds even more raw than in the original, and you're transported to a real recording studio, rather than the ghostly Phil Spector-esque hall that the classic version seems to emanate from.

Now, that's not to say the new mix is better than the old. But it's just different enough from the familiar. For a second you feel a slight wave of novelty -- as when this record first thumped out of the bass-heavy radio in dad's old car, or squeaked out of that tinny two-transistor radio, made in Japan.

This week I came across yet another box set which does much the same thing with classic songs by many of the other Motown artists. It's caled "The Motown Box," and it contains, among other things, quite a few extended and remixed versions of the classic singles. If you're a Motown fanatic, several of the features of this collection fill in missing audio information from those legendary sessions in Berry Gordy's "snake pit." The tracks don't fade out as quickly as the originals do, and you can second-guess the decisions that were made about how songs should end. A few sneaky edits are removed. And many of the inputs are mixed differently, with nice results. In some of the Temptations' numbers, for example, the new box turns up the mikes on the background singers and the Funk Brothers, so that they're not drowned out by the lead singer. You hear instruments and voices that were somewhere in the original performances, but given such little volume in the original mixes that even top-notch audio equipment could never have brought them out of your stereo.

With many of these singles, the groove is so strong that you've always been sorry to hear it end. And so anybody who can tack another five or 10 seconds of the real thing onto it -- and bring the Funk Brothers' and background singers' contributions into clearer focus -- is aces in my book.

Here's the best part: If you live here in Multnomah County, you needn't shell out 60 or 80 bucks to hear these box sets. Our county library has them in its collecton, and you can have them all to yourself for three weeks if you're willing to put your name on a list and wait for them. I knock local government all the time on this blog, but you won't catch me bashing the library. That's where I go to get my Marvin Gaye.

Comments (7)

I must say, I share your affinity for Motown and it's stable, but lack your perspective and appreciate the review. Make it a regular thang??? Dawg!

James Jameson, Carol Kaye, i would grovel in the dirt to be able to play like either of those two.

Jamerson. You can tell when he was on the session. Inventive, playful, relentless, and often doing the seemingly impossible. The story about him and "What's Goin' On" is worth the whole price of the Funk Brothers movie. That and Joan Osborne (sigh).

I was lucky enough to see the Funk Brothers open for the Dead a few years back on New Year's Eve. They were the highlight of the night- absolutely awesome, powerful, fun, tight, you name it! I will look for that dvd for sure.

thanks for the correction, jack :) That was my first guess, then i thought it looked weird, so i got it wrong!

People movin out, people movin in.....

Great post, Cuz.

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