Fondly named after Cleveland DJ Eddie O’Jay, who had mentored the group, The O'Jays (Walter Williams, William Powell, and primary lead singer Eddie Levert) started in the early ‘60s but didn’t really make a splash until they became the go-to group for the legendary production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Along with other groups such as The Spinners, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and The Delfonics, The O’Jays came to define “Philly soul,” which was correctly defined by Wikipedia as being “a style of soul music characterized by lush instrumental arrangements often featuring sweeping strings and horns. The result is a much smoother sound compared to the more funky and gritty deep soul found in Atlanta or Houston, and also set itself apart from Motown with its gentler sound.” Back Stabbers was the group’s breakthrough album, as the terrific title track and “Love Train” were smash hits; the former (a #3 hit) is both delectably pretty and darkly disturbing, while the latter (a #1 hit) is a classic feel good anthem and a great party song that's currently making the rounds on Coors beer commercials. Still, though those two classic singles are the inarguable highlights (does anyone not like those songs?), this album was no hits plus filler affair. Indeed, songs such as “When The World’s At Peace” and “992 Arguments” successfully show a funkier side to the group, led by Levert’s gritty lead vocals, while “(They Call Me) Mr. Lucky” and “Time To Get Down” are lighter, hooky pop numbers that are pleasantly melodic and catchy. Elsewhere, “Who Am I” is an evocative vocal showcase and “Sunshine” is a sunny, somewhat corny pop ballad with a singable chorus. “Listen To The Clock On The Wall” is another strong track, with lush harmonies and strings plus a dramatic lead vocal, while the string-drenched, propulsive “Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind” is musically mysterious and lyrically exemplifies the distrustful air that permeates several of these songs; this was the era of Vietnam and Watergate, after all, and Gamble was never shy about voicing his political opinions. On the whole, perhaps this album is a bit slow going at times, and from a musical standpoint it's not the most original or daring album around, but consistently strong songs, stellar vocal performances, and attractively lush musical settings makes Back Stabbers one of the better soul albums of the early '70s, and a classic of its type.
Ship Ahoy (Epic/Legacy ’73) Rating: A-
Similarly strong, this second straight classic installment was more of the same high quality stuff, and together with Back Stabbers represents the twin peaks of the O'Jays output. Featuring an exemplary mix of message music and love songs, the O'Jays stretch out a bit more on this one, with three out of its eight songs exceeding seven minutes. Smooth yet gritty, with a singable harmonized chorus (as per most of these songs), "Put Your Hands Together" starts the album off with a top 10 hit and is the album's lone up-tempo track along with the similarly stellar, string-drenched "People Keep Telling Me." Most of this album is comprised of moodier material, which is best exemplified by the dark, ominous, guitar heavy title track, whose 9+ minutes come and go all too quickly and whose ambitious lyrics relating to slave trading see Gamble and Huff at their socially conscious best. The other 9+ minute track, the scathing "Don't Call Me Brother," overstays its welcome but is still quite good, while the ecologically aware, comparatively jaunty "This Air That I Breathe" and "You Got Your Hooks In Me," a slow burning ballad until its brighter chorus, are other solid album tracks. The catchy, questioning "Now That We Found Love" was later a big hit for Heavy D and is another highlight here, but the highlight along with the title track is "For The Love Of Money," whose intro at least should be familiar to anyone who's ever watched The Apprentice T.V. show starring Donald Trump. Anyway, this track, about the insidious pull of the almighty dollar, sees O'Jays at their funky best, with saxophone and keyboards adding to the usual luscious strings and fat bass lines for a truly masterful track. This whole album is pretty great, actually, and any fan of '70s soul should get on board ASAP.
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