On this evidence his voice still has more than enough authority to carry it off.
Chris Jones 2008-03-27
Michael McDonald is blessed with a set of pipes that are recognisable from a thousand paces. Besides being the voice behind such classics as the Doobie Brothers' What A Fool Believes or his own Sweet Freedom, his mournful soul stylings provided the precision required for Steely Dan's later albums, and you could still tell it was him wailing away in the background. Such a feat tells you that, despite this being his third album of covers in a row, it's not to be dismissed as some kind of creative bankrupcy. After all, like all great soul singers, his skill is in the interpretation, not the origination. Soul Speak, as such, is impeccable.
His last two albums were solely comprised of Motown standards. This time Mike spreads his net further afield. Thus we get the Philly smooch of Love TKO, Bacharach and David's Walk On By and even Jackie Wilson's Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher And Higher) - all despatched with poise and that voice that sounds like it's constantly on the verge of tears. Motown is still here too, in the shape of two Stevie Wonder classics: Living For The City and For Once In My Life. As with most of Soul Speak, both are treated with an almost over-careful respect, though any complaints that the harmonica solo in the latter is almost note-for-note a copy of the original will be dashed when you realise that it's actually Wonder himself playing it.
It's on the less predictable choices that McDonald really makes you sit up and listen, though. Attempting Van Morrison's Into The Mystic may seem like sacrilege to some, but in this context, embellished with a salty accordion, he actually pulls it off. And while reinventing Bob Marley's Redemption Song as a power ballad may make reggae fans blanch, his bluesy trawl through Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is astounding. It actually takes a song now so familiar and makes it new again.
Mixed into this are a couple of originals by Michael and his producer, Simon Climie. Both reflect the shining, over-polished, full of slightly-too-prominent-guitar-wailing-type production that stops Soul Speak being a genuine classic. While impressive, next time it would be good to see Mike strip it all back and try more of those leftfield choices. On this evidence his voice still has more than enough authority to carry it off.