CD Review of Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia by Various Artists
Recommended if you like
The Spinners, The O’Jays,
Teddy Pendergrass
Label
Legacy/PIR
Various Artists:
Love Train:
The Sound of Philadelphia

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
he record industry has never turned up its nose at the opportunity to repackage an artist’s earlier work, especially if that work was at all commercially successful – but in the last 15 years, things have clearly gotten more than a little out of hand. Really, how many copies of The Essential Damn Yankees have been purchased? Who greenlighted a double-disc REO Speedwagon compilation? Did they have a straight face when they signed the memo?

Even in the midst of all these unnecessary reissues and box sets, however, there’s still plenty of room for the occasional repackaging that’s not only well worth your time and money, but actually plugs a gap in the marketplace – and Legacy, God bless ‘em, has filled just such a void with the four-disc Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia. Offering up 71 tracks from the Philadelphia International vaults, compiled with the input and assistance of label founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Love Train is the crown jewel in Legacy’s ongoing campaign to restore PIR’s long-lost market luster, and if you know anyone who gets misty-eyed when they hear a classic late ‘70s Philly soul song, now you know what you’re getting them for Christmas.

One of the fringe benefits of all the label merging and consolidation that’s taken place over the last decade or so is that it’s put a lot of classic recordings under the same corporate roofs – and thanks to the mega-merger that brought Sony and BMG together a few years ago, Love Train doesn’t stop with songs that were originally issued via Philadelphia International. Gamble & Huff were a hitmaking production duo in their own right, and a healthy chunk of this box is devoted to the songs they produced for artists such as Wilson Pickett, the Manhattans, the Stylistics, and, of course, the Spinners. Legacy also spared no expense when it came to Love Train’s packaging, throwing in a beauty of a booklet that contains in-depth information on each track, a label timeline, and nine absorbing essays from critics, musicians, and scholars (including Gamble & Huff themselves).

Perhaps the set’s biggest surprise is that, although it proceeds chronologically, there isn’t a tremendous drop in quality between its earliest tracks, which kick off with the Soul Survivors’ 1967 classic “Expressway (To Your Heart),” and its final disc, which closes with Patti LaBelle’s 1983 R&B chart-topper, “If Only You Knew.” The bloom started falling off the PIR rose in the late ‘70s, but the box’s penultimate track, Deniece Williams’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” was a #10 pop hit in 1982, proving that Gamble & Huff hadn’t lost their touch.

And then there’s the classic stuff – the hits you know by heart, from artists such as the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls…the list goes on and on. Philadelphia International’s releases were never as huge as Motown, or as joyously raw as Stax, but the label had an instantly identifiable sound; Gamble & Huff stressed a pop-friendly, upbeat aesthetic with strong disco overtones, and even though PIR’s sonic template sometimes overwhelmed the artists it was imposed upon, the results were usually difficult to argue with – and every single one of Love Train’s tracks has aged beautifully.

It’s easy to be skeptical of anthologies with fourth-quarter release dates, and with a $50 list price, Love Train ain’t cheap – but this is a stellar example of a label reaching into its past the right way. It sounds great, it looks great, and it’s even a great read. Don’t you know that it’s time to get on board?

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