The Best of The Stylistics
Squirm factor: 4
The Stylistics' records made with Thom Bell are one of the finest examples of a producer bringing out otherwise untapped resources from a group. This collection spans their early career before Bell, and includes a couple hits recorded after they parted ways, and the selections in the chronological middle are stunningly better than the others.
That's not to say their other work isn't without merit. "You're a Big Girl Now" is one of the few records that show the Stylistics as a vocal group, with prominent harmonies on the chorus, instead of the Russell Thompkins show. And "Let's Put It All Together" has a fragile melody that never steps over the line into childish sing-song; the lyrics are gently seductive, too.
But it's the Bell records that make this one of the finest albums in my collection. Working with lyricist Linda Creed, Bell wrote a series of winsome love songs grounded in everyday life, not moon and June cliches. It's refreshing to hear in a love song about the population boom. But the tunes are what's really powerful. "You Make Me Feel Brand New" opens with an electric sitar, then blossoms with a big string crescendo into… a restrained two-note phrase that Airron Love delivers with delectable richness. Thompkins takes over the lead in the chorus, and his falsetto (he always sings falsetto - I wonder if he didn't have much "regular" range) hits unbelievably high notes in a quick succession of descending phrases. He never glides through the notes - he hits each precisely and crisply. The tune on "filled with gratitude…for you" is an incredibly controlled performance.
Other love songs are just as moving. "I'm Stone in Love with You" is a great daydreaming song, all about wishing for movie stardom and wealth (and even a house on the moon), that brings it all around to true love with the refrain. It's fun to hear Thompkins to make the leap on "you" at the end of the chorus. "Break Up to Make Up" has an effective melodic device of repeating the notes from "break up" in "make up", and is well-observed in the little details that define a relationship.
The one break from ballads is "Rockin' Roll Baby," an enchanting tale of a Michael Jackson-type (only he starts off at age two) with a lovely bridge that floats gently down the scale ("born in a theater, in Bluefield, West Virginia").
The performances here are all terrific, especially Thompkins' leads but also the harmonies from the other Stylistics. What really gives these songs their edge, though, is the arrangements - from obvious touches like the marimba in "People Make the World Go 'Round" to more subtle moves like the strings moving downward a beat ahead of the vocal in the chorus of "Stone in Love with You", Bell's deft pen gives these enduring tunes accompaniment to match.
If I had to have just one record of love songs, I'd take this one with me to my new house on the moon.
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