The Delfonics

La-La Means I Love You: The Definitive Collection (Arista 97) Rating: A-
The Delfonics are primarily remembered today for two smash singles that are the epitome of soft soul, "La-La Means I Love You" and "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)." Those are the two best songs here, and both are timeless classics, but what may surprise newcomers is how consistently strong the rest of this 20-track compilation is. Brothers William and Wilbert Hart formed the heart of the group (pardon the pun) along with Randy Cain (later replaced by Major Harris), but much credit is also due to producer Thom Bell, who along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were the architects of the "Philly Soul" sound that was so prominent in the early '70s (now that the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame finally inducted Gamble and Huff, how about doing the same for Bell in the non-performer category?). The trademark Delfonics/Huff sound featured lush strings that mostly anchored slow, beautiful ballads, while William's pained, high-pitched tenor falsettos were striking and the group's harmonies simply delectable. Groups such as The Stylistics and Chi-Lites would later use similar formulas with even better success on their ballads, but The Delfonics were there first, and their warmly inviting, smoothly soothing music still holds up very well all these years later (Quinten Tarantino certainly thought so, plugging the band big time in his 1997 flick Jackie Brown). True, many of these songs, most written by William Hart with Bell, float by in an effortlessly ear pleasing manner without really standing out from the pack, but they do vary the formula occasionally, upping the tempos on "Ready Or Not Hear I Come (You Can't Hide)," "Funny Feeling," and "I Told You So," for example. Other atypical tracks are "Delfonics Theme," a longer symphonic (mostly) instrumental that's almost epic in scope, and "Hey! Love," which is haunting and moodier than the surrounding material, most of which is comprised of sad, brokenhearted ballads that are relationship rather than sex-based but which are undeniably sexy just the same. Sometimes the schmaltz factor is a bit high, and again it can be hard to distinguish individual tracks because there's a certain formula to what these guys do, but Bell's consistently creative (a French horn here, kettledrums there, etc.) and classy arrangments ensure that even the weakest songs are at least pleasant. When easily singable hooks are present on tracks such as "Break Your Promise," "Somebody Loves You," "Trying To Make A Fool Out Of Me," "Walk Right Up To The Sun," "Think It Over," and of course those two aforementioned classics, the results are far more than merely pleasant, and this collection rightfully focuses on the group's late'60s-early '70s prime when they were mainstays on the r&b charts. Alas, Bell left in 1971 to concentrate on The Stylistics (and later The Spinners), and the group's success was short-lived thereafter, though they had some notable later songs such as "Walk Right Up To The Sun" I Think Its Over, "I Don't Want To Make You Wait," and "I Told You So" (Hart was still a capable songwriter, after all). An acrimonious split came later, making for a sad addendum (the brothers tour separately with different versions of the group) that is all too common in the music industry, but this collection captures the very good (if rarely truly great) old days in grand fashion.

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