Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Temptations

  • Greatest Hits [Motown, 1966]
  • Psychedelic Shack [Gordy, 1970] B
  • Greatest Hits, Volume 2 [Gordy, 1970] A-
  • Sky's the Limit [Gordy, 1971] B
  • Solid Rock [Gordy, 1972] C
  • All Directions [Gordy, 1972] B+
  • Masterpiece [Gordy, 1973] C+
  • 1990 [Gordy, 1973] C-
  • A Song for You [Gordy, 1975] C
  • Bare Back [Atlantic, 1978] C
  • Reunion [Gordy, 1982] B-
  • Anthology [Motown, 1995] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Greatest Hits [Motown, 1966]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Psychedelic Shack [Gordy, 1970]
It's no accident that the best cut here begins "Ain't no words to this song." For all the hyperactivity of his horn charts, Norman Whitfield is a lot better equipped to get funky than to lead Motown's belated raid on "relevance," and many of these lyrics are dreadful. Several of them are quite all right, though, and "War" does help mitigate the climactic wishy-wash of "Friendship Train." More to the point, the singing and playing really do fuse the production styles of Smokey and Sly, a major achievement. Why do white people challenge these songs so much quicker than they did "Lucy in the Sky" or "Happiness Is a Warm Gun"? Are friendship trains any dumber than bed-ins? B

Greatest Hits, Volume 2 [Gordy, 1970]
They have declined, it's true. Though my animus against "Ball of Confusion" disappeared the moment I heard four teenaged girls sing it in a doorway on Avenue B, "Psychedelic Shack" and "Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down" are worthy of the Monkees and a couple of the love songs (on the same side, I'm happy to report) are drab. But "Cloud Nine" and "Run Away Child, Running Wild" not only work as pop protest but bear witness to how funky these smoothies have become. And so do such pinnacles of harmony as "I Wish It Would Rain" and "I Can't Get Next to You." A-

Sky's the Limit [Gordy, 1971]
Greater even than "Just My Imagination" is "Smiling Faces Sometimes," in which for twelve minutes Norman Whitfield's spacey string and sound effects combine with a rhythm track that might as well be looped to transform Eddie Kendricks's soft lead into the rap of a paranoid soothsayer. But on the flip Whitfield funks up James Bond horns for nine horrible minutes and finds a Swahili title for an offensively defensive brotherhood appeal. B

Solid Rock [Gordy, 1972]
The Whitfield-Strong notes describe the Temptations as "five of the strongest individuals we've ever met," but nowhere are these individuals named. There is, however, a roll call of studio musicians. C

All Directions [Gordy, 1972]
The producer gets one side--live "funky music," a song about white people that's actually nasty, and the Franz Mesmer Memorial Version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," all 11:45 of it. The group gets the other--sweet ballads of varying quality plus three minutes of easy Isaac Hayes funk. The album is their best of the decade--mostly on the strength of the producer's side. B+

Masterpiece [Gordy, 1973]
One hesitates to complain about "another" tale of oppression in the ghetto, but Norman Whitfield, who dominates the tale by spacing out his few ideas over fourteen minutes, provides the temptation. C+

1990 [Gordy, 1973]
Not only isn't this good Motown, it isn't good Motown psychedelic--except for some sharp strumming on the title track (a half-assed indictment of/tribute to America) it never takes off rhythmically or vocally. C-

A Song for You [Gordy, 1975]
"Shakey Ground" could almost be some old gospel stomper, a good thing on an album that includes a tribute to Kahlil Gibran. And though the selection is a bit of a cliché, it's nice to hear David Ruffin stretch out on the title tune. Only wait a second, that's obviously not David Ruffin. Paul Williams? No, he died. Norman Whitfield? No, he left, and anyway I don't think he's a singer. And Eddie Kendricks, I mean Damon Harris, is a tenor. Oh yeah, Dennis Edwards. C

Bare Back [Atlantic, 1978]
In which a major club attraction, its hitmaking days apparently past, essays "A Holland Group Production Inc." in hopes of postponing the transition to oldies act. C

Reunion [Gordy, 1982]
Motown has put a lot into this event, with Berry, Smokey, and even Rick pitching in on new songs, but since most of the leads remain with Dennis Edwards, who led the Tempts into the nightclubs, it's possible to forget that David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks are back. Edwards demonstrates his professionalism by not breaking into giggles during "I've Never Been to Me," but when he proclaims loyalty to the "punk funk" on James's entry, the best-sung George Clinton rip ever, I simply don't believe him. B-

Anthology [Motown, 1995]
The Tempts were too good for their own good--good enough to placate what was once called the adult audience with so-called "standards." Fortunately, the horrible examples that blotch their catalogue are held to "The Impossible Dream," which closes disc one with a dull, symbolic thud. Whereupon they start fronting Norman Whitfield's funk group, which was one of the best. Personally, I would have skipped a few Motown subclassics for a little of the crazy and mellifluous late doowop they made back when Paul Williams was their soul man and Berry Gordy hadn't finalized his formula. But as any American should know, "My Girl" and "It's Growing" and "My Girl" and "I Wish It Would Rain" and "My Girl" and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "My Girl" are the essence of that formula--and also, if he was as lucky as we hope, of David Ruffin's tragic life. A

Further Notes:

Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies [1990s]