“In the style of the boy-band vocal bands of the time, Human Nature became Australia’s most successful pop group of the ’90s and beyond,” according to their Allmusic.com biography, “outselling their international contemporaries Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Boyzone.”
Up until a few weeks ago I’d never heard of these guys. Then again, what I don’t know could fill a warehouse. And after listening to Reach Out (Sony/RED), I’m willing to bet that Human Nature’s introduction to American audiences will be filling distribution warehouses for months to come, but the fact of the matter is that they’re multiplatinum-selling artists back home in Australia who successfully transitioned from boys to men in the past decade by ditching dance-pop and embracing, well, dance-pop from an earlier era.
In 2005 they released Reach Out: The Motown Album, followed by Dancing in the Street: The Songs of Motown II a year later. By the time of 2007’s Get Ready they were enlisting guest appearances by the Temptations, the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, and Smokey Robinson, who’s “presenting” their current “Ultimate Celebration of Motown” stage show at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas, which is advertised on the back cover of their new album’s CD booklet.
However, the American version of Reach Out isn’t technically a new album — it’s a compilation that takes songs from all three of Human Nature’s Motown discs and erases any telltale copyright dates from the liner notes. If you’ve never heard the originals that are covered by the Aussie quartet — brothers Michael and Andrew Tierney, Toby Allen, and Phil Burton have been singing together since high school in the ’80s, when Motown nostalgia first became a booming business — you might think the melodies are pretty catchy, with a good beat you can dance to. In other words, if you’re under ten years old this is a serviceable introduction to Motown, but if you’re in double digits, Reach Out comes across as professional karaoke, with the only acknowledgment of any Fauxtown backing band being “the gifted musicians who helped create this record.” Might one of those musicians be named Mac, and is it possible another one goes by the initials PC? (Allmusic.com lists the musicians who worked on the three Australian releases, but their instruments still sound canned either way.)
There just isn’t any point to these carbon copies, hence the nagging suspicion that the Las Vegas live show is where Human Nature gives the baby-boomer grandmas their money’s worth after a long day of dumping quarters into slot machines. And ladies, don’t be afraid to bring your granddaughters — as I said, the blokes from Human Nature provide a good-enough intro to Berry Gordy’s Detroit hit factory (emphasis on “factory”), and they’re handsome in a nonthreatening, JC Penney-catalog kind of way.
Of course, after you hear their version of the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” you’ll know for certain that the song works best when sung by children who are trying to sound like adults, not men pushing 40 who want to sound “innocent.” And when they tackle the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in a higher register than normal, as if emulating the voices of Mary Wilson and company, I wanted to believe that they were making a statement about being secure in one’s sexuality — until they changed the line “Why don’t you be a man about it?” to “I want to be a man about it.” Indeed.
The best track here, ironically, is “You Are Everything,” recorded by Motown’s Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye as a duet in 1974, but the Stylistics did it first (and best) three years earlier. The Stylistics weren’t on Motown or even from Motown — they were a Philadelphia group produced by the great Thom Bell, who cowrote “You Are Everything” with Linda Creed. Granted, I prefer Philly soul over Motown and Memphis R&B any day of the week, but Human Nature’s harmonies and soaring vocals really do transcend the chintzy GarageBand-like instrumental mix on this particular number. Here’s hoping that in concert they fight back against the dehumanizing factory setting even more.
Reach Out is available exclusively at Barnes & Noble.