Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Isley Brothers

  • Get into Something [T-Neck, 1970] B
  • Givin' It Back [T-Neck, 1971] B
  • Brother, Brother, Brother [T-Neck, 1972] B
  • The Isleys Live [T-Neck, 1973] B-
  • 3 + 3 [T-Neck, 1973] B+
  • Live It Up [T-Neck, 1974] B
  • The Heat Is On [T-Neck, 1975] B
  • Harvest for the World [T-Neck, 1976] B-
  • Go For Your Guns [T-Neck, 1977] B
  • Forever Gold [T-Neck, 1977] B+
  • Showdown [T-Neck, 1978] B
  • Timeless [T-Neck, 1978] B+
  • Winner Takes All [T-Neck, 1979] C+
  • Go All the Way [T-Neck, 1979] C+
  • Tracks of Life [Warner Bros., 1992] Neither
  • It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers [Epic/Legacy/T-Neck, 1999] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Get into Something [T-Neck, 1970]
Five of the ten tracks on this album were r&b hits, and even "Girls Will Be Girls," a silly song that does not reflect "Take Inventory"'s astonishing views on the subjection of women, has its pleasures. But none of them went pop--or tore up the r&b charts--because none of them was more than a serviceable rehash. The first side rocks, the second side fluctuates, and let's hope they get into something else soon. B

Givin' It Back [T-Neck, 1971]
An exciting album in theory--cover versions by a genuinely "progressive" (at least self-contained) soul act of eight (mostly) excellent (mostly) rock songs. But only "Spill the Wine" (previously a progressive r&b hit), "Love the One You're With" (previously a progressive rock hit), and "Ohio" (no complaints) are exciting in practice. Ernie Isley just can't match Jimi's "Machine Gun," and soul is wasted on "Fire and Rain" and "Lay Lady Lay," which are more powerful in their understated originals. B

Brother, Brother, Brother [T-Neck, 1972]
Although the three Carole King songs seem a little tame after "Ohio" and "Cold Baloney," her simple messages fit the Isleys' lyrical-to-smarmy gospel credulousness quite neatly. But it's only on the three Isley originals that top off side one that this album makes itself felt, and interestingly enough none of them could be called "progressive": "Lay Away" and "Pop That Thang" are infectious groove tunes, while "Work to Do" is a compelling assertion of male prerogatives whose dire potential was presaged in 1969, when R.B. Greaves found himself forced to swap his wife for his secretary. Love and money, love and money--it's a polarity that tears you apart even more when they give you a (long) shot at both. B

The Isleys Live [T-Neck, 1973]
"Featuring Ernest Isley on Lead Guitar," says a sticker on the back, and that's the pitch for these (slightly) extended remakes, their last album before moving to CBS. Problem is, all that makes Little Brother a Hendrix heir is that unlike most soul-trained guitarists he doesn't merely support the vocalist--he's loud, slow, dramatic. I prefer him to Robin Trower, say--fewer chops, apter context. But they really ought to let him do his thing in the studio. B-

3 + 3 [T-Neck, 1973]
I know the singing siblings have soft tastes in "rock," but where this side of a Warners promo could you expect to find "Summer Breeze," "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," and "Listen to the Music" on the same album? Still, with "That Lady" their most original original in years, Ernie soaring around thrillingly on his magic guitar, and the others popping their various things in ever more winning combinations, this is their sexiest music in years. Just because they manhandled "Fire and Rain" doesn't mean they can't improve on James's schlock. In fact, between their sense of rhythm and their knee-jerk sincerity they make all three covers work--except for the mental jasmine part, of course. B+

Live It Up [T-Neck, 1974]
In which Ernie finally gets to make his studio album. What sound effects--the most technosoulful around. I mean, this guy isn't just whistling wah-wah. I do believe he likes Stevie's synthesizer more than Jimi's guitar, though. B

The Heat Is On [T-Neck, 1975]
This is well-nigh flawless Isleys--the rockish electric textures are muted nicely on side two, "Fight the Power" does its bit to politicize the radio, and Seals & Crofts won't steal any lyrics. But Ronnie Isley isn't getting any less unctuous--when he tries to talk someone into bed he recalls one of those guys who started wearing love beads to singles bars in 1968 or 1969. Progress requires ambition, but the two aren't identical. B

Harvest for the World [T-Neck, 1976]
Ronnie croons, Ernie zooms, and if you suspect you've heard it all before, trust your instincts. B-

Go For Your Guns [T-Neck, 1977]
By the time the competent enough first side was over, I felt completely fed up with their mellifluous bullshit, especially since I'd noticed the title "Voyage to Atlantis" on side two. But that disaster excepted side two is the most hard-edged they've recorded since moving T-Neck to CBS in 1973. Needless to say, the one about "Climbin' Up the Ladder" is even more passionate than the one about "Livin' the Life." Nor is it surprising that the title tune has no lyrics at all. There's no riot goin' on. B

Forever Gold [T-Neck, 1977]
Best-ofs shouldn't have A and B sides, but that's how this one works for me--would have been stronger if they'd pulled something from Go for Your Guns, still on the charts when this was released. You want rock and roll, they'll give you rock and roll--when they want. You want insipid--well, millions do. Most Wishy-Washy Title of All Time: "(At Your Best) You Are Love." B+

Showdown [T-Neck, 1978]
Disco has been good for this band musically: the chic guitar-and-chant of the title tune, the slow, sensuous funk of "Groove With You," and the enigmatic air of "Ain't Givin' Up No Love" are refreshing variants on their basic moon-and-vroom, and both "Rockin' the Fire" and "Take Me to the Next Phase" are pure dance-peak ideology. Doesn't do much for their politics, though. B

Timeless [T-Neck, 1978]
The Isleys are one of the great music-business success stories--in a decade when the artists were supposed to take over the industry, they're one of the few (along with Jefferson Lear Jet) to make a go of their own label. But though T-Neck puts out excellent product, product is all it is. This two-LP compilation, in which their Buddah-distributed material reverts to the Isleys' company (it's virtually identical to Buddah's 1976 The Best . . . package), reminds us that even back when they were inventing their shtick they were also victims of it. The only great songs are "It's Your Thing" and "Work to Do"; they reuse the same harmonies and dynamics again and again. The Isleys to own, probably--but there's no doubt you can live without it. B+

Winner Takes All [T-Neck, 1979]
What's wrong with your clockwork, guys? The two-record set is supposed to be a reissue or an in-concert. And the studio job is supposed to be one disc only. C+

Go All the Way [T-Neck, 1979]
Except on the title cut, a rocking Rodgers & Edwards rip, the formula here is more exact than the best formulas should have to be. And if "The Belly Dancer" is their idea of specificity, I'd just as soon they keep it vague. Cher finds better lyrics. C+

Tracks of Life [Warner Bros., 1992] Neither

It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers [Epic/Legacy/T-Neck, 1999]
Not counting them Beefheart digs, this triple is the single-artist box of the year by acclamation, and why not? It does an honorable job on a significant band whose catalog cries out for landscaping. And compared to the completist monoliths on the Isleys from UA and RCA, it distinguishes hills from dales pretty nice. But folks, this is only the Isley Brothers. They gave us "Twist and Shout" and "It's Your Thing" and, um, "That Lady," they hired Jimi Hendrix young and learned a few things, they formed their own label and held on like heroes. They have a great single disc in them. But who's up for canonization next? Frankie Beverly and Maze? A-

Further Notes:

Distinctions Not Cost-Effective [1980s]: They started the decade with Go All the Way, Inside You, and Between the Sheets. Then they announced a two-for-one stock split.