There are only 26 letters in the Western alphabet, and thousands upon thousands of musical acts, so it’s only natural that every once in awhile, a band will end up choosing a name that’s already taken. It can be confusing for fans, but it’s unavoidable. And it’s the explanation I’m choosing for Still Here, a collection of mistakes perpetrated by a group of frauds calling themselves the Temptations.
Okay, so I’m in denial. But hey, you could build an argument against these Temptations, however flimsy — at this point, Otis Williams is the sole remaining member of the group, which has seen a dizzying number of lineup changes over the last 50 years — and although the fact that their current sound bears no resemblance to classic Temps isn’t surprising, it’s still deeply depressing. So I’m going to write about Still Here in this column, and then I’m going to go right back to pretending it was released by a pack of jackals trying to pass themselves off as one of the greatest groups in the history of American music.
Technically, I suppose Still Here doesn’t deserve to be the subject of a You Again? feature, because the Temptations have been recording pretty consistently throughout their five-decade career, and their last effort, the covers collection Back to Front, was only released three years ago. But on the other hand, the group is so far removed from the limelight that each new album is a surprise — I’ve told probably a dozen people about Still Here, and all of them have reacted with astonishment. The band didn’t pick that album title for nothin’.
I should point out that I don’t have any problem with the idea of a new Temptations album in 2010; in fact, I’d love to hear the group’s brilliantly soulful harmonies, hard-charging rhythms, and gorgeous ballads brought into the 21st century. The problem is that, for the most part, the Temptations themselves don’t seem particularly interested in hearing the Temptations. There’s no shortage of harmony, but like a lot of heritage acts, the Temps seem to have gone into Still Here thinking they had to fit into the current R&B scene, and as a result, the record is stuffed with senseless junk like trendy slang, synth bullshit, a rap interlude, and Auto-Tune. (Yes, fucking Auto-Tune! I know!)
Still Here does at least give a half-hearted nod to the band’s rich past as a band capable of moving between social commentary and standard boy/girl fare; the album kicks off with “Change Has Come,” a celebratory call of togetherness inspired by Obama’s election. Which would be awesome if the song didn’t suck so bad — “Big” Bruce Williamson’s lead vocal sounds like the dying struggles of a constipated emphysema patient, the rap cameo on the bridge is embarrassing, and whoever recorded the screeching guitar wanking that was shoved way down in the mix deserves to have his fingers broken.
And then there’s “One of a Kind Lady” and “First Kiss,” which urinate all over the band’s vocal legacy with senseless Auto-Tune (speaking of urinating, the third track, “Let Me Catch Your Diamonds,” begs for an R. Kelly joke). Or how about the awful synth steel drums on “Warm Summer Nights,” which includes the wretched line “Grab your girl/Give her a twirl/Make her feel she’s in another world”? Or, God help us all, what about the first single, “Shawtyismygirlooyeah”?
You read that right. SHAWTY IS MY GIRL OO YEAH. Otis Williams, 68 years old, is dangerously close to being reduced to the rapping grandma in The Wedding Singer.
But it isn’t all bad news. Horrendous title aside, “Shawtyismygirlooyeah” is actually one of the better songs on the album, which settles into a decent, relatively gimmick-free midtempo groove right the eighth track. (Of course, in a better world, Still Here would end at 10 tracks, but whatever.) It never really gets away from that plastic production — I hope I’m wrong, but I think that’s an EWI on “Still Here with Me” — but after the embarrassing fumbles toward relevancy that make up the first part of the album, even mind-numbing filler like “Woman” and “Going Back Home” sounds all right. And Still Here even manages to suggest, once or twice, what a decent Temptations album might sound like in 2010 — most notably with “Soul Music,” which, despite being your garden variety “music used to be so much better” lament, has more honest soul than anything else on the record. There’s also a nifty a cappella tag at the end of “Listen Up” that almost justifies its dreary six-minute-plus length.
A couple of moments do not an album make, however, and after listening to Still Here‘s shoestring production and gazing sadly at its unimaginative cover “art,” you’re left wondering if maybe the buffet circuit isn’t the best place for the Temptations after all. In 1966, they admitted they weren’t too proud to beg; in 2010, they’re still doing it, but with a lot less style. The good news is that those harmonies are still intact — someone get these guys a strong producer and some top-shelf material.
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