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Another solid "Motown" album, 3 ½ Stars
on March 10, 2008
To say that Michael McDonald's "interpretation" of soulful, classic pop songs is lacking in authenticity is a bit of a harsh reality. Though the constant problem with cover albums is gaining the authenticity that the original performer(s) had. On SOUL SPEAK, the exceptionally talented blue-eyed soul/soft-rock star never accomplishes the feat of trumping the originals (though he comes close on opener "I Knew You Were Waiting"), but then that was the same issue present on both MOTOWN and MOTOWN II. What the soul brother does do is cover most tracks convincingly. Those that are less convincing aren't less convincing solely because McDonald isn't the given artist who performed the tracks, but often because some productions on this album are the slightest bit too slick for their own good. SOUL SPEAK is definitely flawed, but it isn't flawed so much that it ruins McDonald's intended effect. Overall, it is a generally likeable album with hits and misses.
"I Knew You Were Waiting" is a brilliant cover by McDonald. The original was a duet between Aretha Franklin and George Michael. McDonalds vocal affectations are much better than Michael could've hoped to have been (not discounting the original by any means, but Franklin outsang him). Sure the production is a bit over slicked, but it works well for McDonald, just as it has on McDonald's previous covers albums. "Living For The City" isn't bad either, but it is Stevie and only Stevie Wonder does Stevie the best. "Love T.K.O." is enjoyable as well, but Teddy Pendergrass shouldn't be fearful of McDonald's fine performance ever trumping his original, "orgasmic" take. "Walk On By" features soulful production, but it doesn't stand out like its predecessors making it McDonald's first miss. It's solid, but not exceptional. "Still Not Over You (Getting Over Me)" is an excellent original from McDonald (the first we've seen for a while!) "Still Not Over Your (Getting Over Me)" makes up for any lost momentum after "Walk On By" while McDonald does fine covering Stevie's version of "For Once In My Life" (still not as strong as Stevie of course!).
The Van Morrison cover "Into The Mystic" isn't bad, though not the very best of SOUL SPEAK. "Hallelujah" is strong enough, though everyone will agree Jeff Buckley's cover of the Leonard Cohen classic is perhaps the very best (aside from the original). It is a strong soulful take though. "Enemy Within" (another original) is solid at best while "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" restores any lost momentum up to that point. "Only God Can Help Me Now" is yet another fine original from McDonald, written solely by him. It stands up strongly against the covers without feeling like fluff. "Baby Can I Change My Mind" and "Redemption Song" are solid, though not great while "You Don't Know Me" is a fine, though not fantastic ending to an overall good covers album.
In some ways, SOUL SPEAK is stronger than some portions of McDonald's other two MOTOWN albums. There are some originals (all except for one being exceptional) and an overall strong selection of covers. What most McDonald fans would like to see, however, is a completely "new" McDonald album with originals that tap back into McDonalds "roots" such as the likes of "I Keep Forgetting" or "Yah-Mo Bee There". With three worthy originals here (even "Enemy Within"), McDonald could easily release a fine solo disc of originals. SOUL SPEAK, is a solid album, despite miniscule flaws. 3 ½ Stars.