As part of the celebration of American Idol‘s Motown Week, the legendary label has—for the first time!—opened its vaults and allowed outsiders to sing over the original Motown studio tracks. For contestants, this is both good and bad. On one hand, there’s no risk that a singer will be dragged down by a middling arrangement. On the other…no excuses! And while a singer covering this material will always suffer next to giants like Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder, those comparisons are heightened when their voices are surrounded by the very drum fills, finger snaps, and guitar obligattos that are on the original hit records. So how did they do? Here’s a rundown of all the tracks, which you can hear and purchase right now on iTunes.
Caveat: I’m not an American Idol watcher, so I haven’t had the opportunity to be charmed by the contestants’ winning personalities. And because they have a Mission: Impossible kind of task here, they’ll be graded on a curve.
1. Adam Lambert, “The Tracks of My Tears”
“People say I’m the life of the party” is the opening line, but Lambert is moaning before the song even starts. Smokey Robinson’s vocal had a little ambiguity, a little buoyancy (listen to the hint of the smiling embouchure when he sings the word “joke”). At no time in this song does Adam sound like he’s attended any party; you will not need to take a good look at his face. Still: pleasant enough, and emotionally dedicated without going overboard. B+
2. Allison Iraheta, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”
Sung by a lady, so gone are the Freudian overtones in the tribute to mom-loving and dad-hating. And because it’s the Temptations on backup vocals, Iraheta gets to actually sing with the marquee names! Sassy and bluesy inflections, so I suspect that she owns Bonnie Raitt records. B
3. Anoop Desai, “Ooo Baby Baby”
Falsettos are kind of like whispers — everyone sounds a little bit more alike. Which means that Desai sounds a little more like Smokey Robinson, and the narcotic arrangement means that he gets a major assist from the Miracles, who envelop his lead with a cozy gauze. A-
4. Danny Gokey, “Get Ready”
He’s going for that Michael Bolton thing, I guess? At 1:04 you can hear him spitting on the microphone. I don’t recall that being one of Eddie Kendricks’ tricks. C-
5. Kris Allen, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”
What a great arrangement this is, with those buttery female vocals! Allen’s ad-libs are bizarre, although I like the weird la-la-las at the two-minute mark, right before he sounds like he’s getting angry and freaks me out a little bit. He’s putting in a lot more effort than James Taylor did. But sometimes effortlessness has its advantages. B-
6. Lil Rounds, “Heatwave”
Martha Reeves had one of the most powerful voices of all Motown singers, so much respect to Ms. Rounds. The second verse soars! If this song didn’t already exist in perfect form, I would listen to this. A
7. Matt Giraud, “Let’s Get It On”
The “Unforgettable”-ish singing-with-the-voices-of-the-past finally gets super-creepy, when he and Marvin Gaye trade “my body wants you”s. There’s a picture of Matt that pops up on my iTunes, but thankfully no Marvin Gaye hologram. C
8. Megan Joy, “For Once In My Life”
She sounds like Nelly Furtado on a bender. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo is intact, which gives us a too-brief respite. D+
9. Scott MacIntyre, “You Can’t Hurry Love”
Bizarrely, whoever mixed this put the backing vocals much further up in the mix than they are in the original, which lends a heretofore unrealized “traffic jam” effect to the song. Quality-wise, MacIntyre’s rendition falls somewhere between Phil Collins’ take recorded in 1982, and Kenneth the Page’s version, which only exists in my mind. It’s closer, alas, to the latter. D
What do you think of these new Motown tracks? Did the Idol hopefuls do them justice?
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