CD Review of Soul Speak by Michael McDonald
Recommended if you like
Paul Carrack, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Joe Cocker
Label
Universal Motown
Michael McDonald:
Soul Speak

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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H
e was absolutely unstoppable as a member of the Doobie Brothers, but Michael McDonald’s solo career has been a case study in unmet expectations – both by his former label, which cut him loose in the ‘90s, and his fans, who have suffered through album after album of listless adult contemporary marzipan, forever hoping that one day he’d cut the crap and get back to getting his boogie down at the piano. Given the dire straits McDonald’s career seemed to be in at the turn of the century, then, it was hard to begrudge his decision to record an album of Motown covers (titled Motown, natch) a few years back, or to follow it up with the brilliantly titled Motown Two. The records sold better than anything he’d released in years, after all. Surely, he’d get back to recording original material after the second one.

Nope. Soul Speak is McDonald’s third straight album of covers. He finally seems to be getting restless here – he’s sprinkled in a few originals among the outside material – but not restless enough to drop the Rod Stewart act and stop playing to the cheap seats. For this reason, Soul Speak is a deeply disappointing Michael McDonald album.

Happily, that’s just about the only measure by which Speak disappoints. As fine a songwriter as McDonald is, he’s just as adept (if not more so) at interpreting others’ material, and by opting not to go the Motown Three route, he keeps his cover options open. The results range from the intriguingly left-field (“Redemption Song,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the Aretha Franklin/George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting [For Me]”) to the disappointingly safe (“Love T.K.O.,” “Walk On By”), but that’s par for the course with this type of project. Where Soul Speak really excels is in the presentation.

For a guy who’s arguably the preeminent blue-eyed soul singer in the business, McDonald has proven himself heartbreakingly susceptible to production owing absolutely nothing to soul; the bulk of his solo catalog is larded over with acres of synths, drum machines, and sleep-inducing tempos. Since releasing 2000’s Blue Obsession on the Jeff Bridges-owned Ramp Records label, McDonald has shown an increased willingness to get his records’ fingernails dirty, but even the Motown albums were much too polite – thin facsimiles of soul for people whose idea of a great soul record is something by Seal. This problem isn’t entirely solved here, but McDonald sounds looser than he has in decades, and on some tracks – such as, oddly enough, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” – the production is kept to enough of a minimum that you can actually hear the band breathe.

Judged as a Michael McDonald album, Soul Speak is a poor substitute for something truly new from the erstwhile Doobie – but taken purely as a listening experience, it goes down exceedingly easy. A handful of these songs never needed to be covered again, and McDonald’s version of “Into the Mystic” bites the dust a few hundred yards shy of its target, but the audience he and Universal are aiming for won’t care one bit. Don’t be surprised if it sells well enough to prompt a fourth covers album – although at that point, McDonald will have some serious ‘splainin’ to do.

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