Among the most flat-out enjoyable sounds to my ears is “Philly soul,” and The Stylistics were one of its best proponents. With a big assist from producer/songwriter Thom Bell and lyricist Linda Creed, who worked similar magic with The Spinners, The Stylistics was an all-killer, no-filler 9-song debut that spawned several smash singles, the biggest being “Betcha By Golly, Wow” and “You Are Everything.” The Stylistics’ sound was notable for the utterly unique, sweetly high-pitched vocals of Russell Thompkins, Jr., classy, creamy backing harmonies from James Smith, Airrion Love, James Dunn, and Herbie Murrell, and lush, intoxicating instrumentation that could be surprisingly adventurous (strings, trumpet, flute, French horn, trombone, harp, and organ appear). Still, rather than innovation and depth – nearly all of these songs are simple, slow-paced love ballads – what The Stylistics primarily delivers is a spectacularly hummable consistency. The aforementioned top 10 hits are acknowledged soft soul classics, but other well-known songs like "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" and “You’re A Big Girl Now” are also excellent, and lesser known album tracks such as the more up tempo “Point Of No Return” and “Ebony Eyes” are also damn near irresistible. Unfortunately, at under a half hour the album seems a bit skimpy by today’s standards, and the longest and most ambitious track by far, "People Make the World Go Round," is the album's least hooky number. Still, this is nitpicking, as, for a purely pleasurable sound, The Stylistics in their early ‘70s prime were tough to beat.
Round 2 (Amherst '72, ’03) Rating: B+
More of the same and damn near as good, though not quite as good as the first album. Clearly Bell/Creed went by the old “if it ‘ain’t broke don’t fix it” adage, and as such this album doesn’t veer far from what came before it, though there are some wrinkles. For one thing, this album has two cover songs, a pretty good but unnecessary remake of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” and a wonderful cover of Bacharach/David’s “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart).” The latter song became a significant r&b hit, while the effortlessly catchy “I’m Stone In Love With You” and the bittersweet “Break Up To Make Up” went even better, cracking the U.S. top 10 pop charts. Elsewhere, the naive lyrics seem a bit sillier than the last time, and the samey quality of some of these songs makes me think “formula.” But when the formula is this good on a song as gorgeous as “You’re As Right As Rain,” all is forgiven. Tracks such as “If You Don’t Watch Out” and “Pieces” are a bit faster paced, and again the albums lone long song, “Children Of The Night,” is less overtly hooky than the others, as Bell/Creed and the group attempt a moodier, more dramatic vibe, with mostly successful results. Overall, this album is a bit more ambitious and the songs are less consistent, though they're still plenty good on the whole and of course Thompkins, Jr. (who reminds me of Barry Gibb in falsetto mode a bit) and the rest of the guys sound great as usual, as does the legendary house band MFSB who supplies the music.
Rockin' Roll Baby (Amherst '73, ’00) Rating: B+
More of the same but not as good, part II. That said, this is still another enjoyable album, and again there are subtle differences. By and large our love struck narrator is still doe-eyed and fully committed, but the lyrics are more cynical this time; she's more likely to be cheating like on "There's No Reason," and Thompkins Jr. even gets revenge-minded on "Payback Is A Dog." Of course, such negativity doesn't fit the band nearly as well as tracks like "Love Comes Easy," with its easy loping groove and sweetly singable chorus, and "You Make Me Feel Brand New." Arguably the band's best-known and best song, the latter features a stunningly assured lead vocal turn from Love, as well as dramatic declarations from Thompkins, Jr. Elsewhere, I hear more flutes and horns, and a subtle disco influence creeps in on songs such as "Only For The Children" and "I Won't Give You Up," while the terrific up tempo title track could almost be called "rocking" by their laid back standards. Still, by and large the group delivers more classy mood music along the lines of "Could This Be The End," though, more than on the previous two albums, much of this material (again masterminded by Bell and Creed) could be classified as "pleasant" but not much more. For all their elegant grace, I wish that Thompkins, Jr. and the rest of the group would break a sweat once in awhile, but I guess I shouldn't criticize them too much for simply sticking to their strengths.
The Best Of The Stylistics (H&L '75, Amherst '90) Rating: A
There are quite a few Stylistics compilations on the market, but as usual I’m going to review the one I’ve heard, though there are more comprehensive collections out there. Then again, too many sugary sweets can give you a stomach ache, so there’s something to be said for this concise 10-track summary, which lives up to its title in no uncertain terms. This album takes four songs from the stellar debut (“Betcha By Golly, Wow,” “You're A Big Girl Now,” “You Are Everything,” “People Make The World Go Around”), two apiece from its fine follow-ups (“Break Up To Make Up,” “I'm Stone In Love With You,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “Rockin' Roll Baby”), and one song apiece from the two subsequent, less well-received albums (“Heavy Fallin' Out” from Heavy and “Let's Put It All Together” from the album of the same name) that were produced by Van McCoy rather than Thom Bell, who bowed out in 1974 (the group was never really the same thereafter, though they still had success overseas). As is usually the case, you could quibble about certain omissions (“Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” and “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart)” for example), and to truly get a complete picture of the group and to hear quite a few lesser-known gems along the way, you should check out the original albums (but isn’t that always the case?). Still, for a concise sampling, or to simply hear the very best that this group had to offer, there’s no denying that most of the songs that this group is fondly remembered for appear on this disc, and that soft soul music fans will likely greatly enjoy listening to it.
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