Four Tops

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Four TopsFour Tops (1965)

Is Stubbs self-indulgent in his vocal stylings? Unquestionably so. Is that a hindrance for his group’s debut? Only a bit.

To be sure, Levi is a supremely talented man, letting loose with soaring cries of anguish, sobs of romantic distress, and all the other tricks of the trade. What sets him apart from other Soul Men, though, is his near-theatrical sense of drama; not since the great Roy Orbison has pop such a keen weeper. Just tune in to the album’s first two songs: For all their blustery magniloquence, breakups have rarely sounded this gripping and impactful. Plus, “Without the One You Love” has a drop-dead ruthless hook.

As singers of Stubbs’ stripe tend to, he inches perilously close to self-parody a few times. For instance, his angst on “Your Love Is Amazing” has no place atop such a cheery riff, and I swear the closer is about to morph into “You Send Me” at any minute.

That’s where The Funk Brothers come in. Without such direct, efficient instrumentation, there’s no question this project would capsize beneath its earnestness. So where Levi brings the tears, Motown’s band brings the teeth, laying down some lean grooves that keep us (and more importantly, the lead) on our toes in frequently daring ways (“Sad Souvenirs”).

In the end, it’s that juxtaposition that makes Four Tops work so well. Alongside the label’s typical panache, we get high-flying popera that stays tethered enough to Earth for us proles to relate to.

Now who wants to place bets on this balance imploding?

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Second Album

Second Album (1965)

At first glance, this seems to be a well-deserved victory lap, with singles like “I Can’t Help Myself” and “It’s the Same Old Song” ready-made for chart success. And while I can gripe about how the hooks are slightly labored and the chords too familiar, the fundamentals are the same as before. (There’s even another “You Send Me” sycophant).

Where Second Album derails into kitsch, though, is in its instrumentation. Last time, strings were reserved for a sweeping chorus while rich piano comping kept Stubbs in check throughout. It was an effective balance of sweet and simple. Now the orchestration is as hysterical as its front man, quashing the subtleties that made Four Tops such a good listen. But don’t worry, Levi has upped the hamminess to follow suit (“Just As Long As You Need Me”).

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