CD Review: UNDER THE STREETLIGHT (Boyz II Men on Sony Masterworks)

by Tony Frankel on November 8, 2017

in CD-DVD

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DOO-WOP NOT REINVENTED

In the mid-80s, Boyz II Men original members Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, Shawn Stockman, and Michael McCary began like the classic doo-wop singers of the 1950s: practicing on street corners and areas with great acoustics (McCary left the popular R&B quartet in 2003). So it’s fitting that the trio’s latest CD is a testament to the golden age of doo-wop, a style of small-group vocal harmonizing which was named for the nonsense harmony phrases sung under the vocal lead. Any excuse to introduce this generation to classic rock, even if it’s a copied redux more than copious reinvention, is fine by me. But with few new arrangements (most of the covers have copycatted the original artists’ renditions) and only 10 tracks running a total of 29 minutes, it feels like very little time and thought has gone into making their first effort since Collide, the 2014 CD which was comprised of all original material.

That’s not to say the Boyz don’t sound swell; they do, but it’s often homogenized and safe. Wanya’s falsetto is lush on “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” a cover of 13-year-old Frankie Lymon’s 1955 smash with The Teenagers (original Teenager Jimmy Merchant is featured with a short stint on saxophone); it’s unoriginal but fun. But good harmony doesn’t mean hot: joined by the gospel a capella group Take 6, “A Thousand Miles Away” is not only that, but it’s  anemic, too, left in the dust by The Heartbeats’ original 1957 version.

“Stay” honors Maurice Williams’ 1960 tune (made famous by the Four Seasons), but just as you think it’ll get rocking, the song fades out at 1:29. And while “I Only Have Eyes for You” is a well-produced track, it seems a bit strange that we get the Xeroxed version of The Flamingos, including the exact same vocal inflections, rhythm section, and background vocals. Also faithful to a T is “Up on the Roof”; but here The Drifters’ version is done with “keyboard programming” substituting for the violins.

Brian McKnight comes on board with a great a capella arrangement of Sam Cooke’s first non-gospel breakout hit, “I’ll Come Running Back to You.” To my knowledge, there hasn’t been an a capella cover, so here is a sample of what’s possible with a wholly original take. While it still doesn’t pierce the heart of soul, it’s very agreeable, as is “Tears on My Pillow.” It’s with “A Sunday Kind of Love” that the Boyz truly separate themselves from previous versions, and add their own special R&B vibe.

Singing with Wanya, Amber Riley, a smash in London’s production of Dreamgirls, actually improves on the great Irma Thomas’s “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)”—here’s a doo-wop song which actually is reinvented to sound more like the classic R&B/Soul duos like Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, but with more punch.

The best cut is an original. Bouncy and breezy with a knockout hook, “Ladies Man,” credited with seven (!) composers, captures that bygone era with bubblegum pop. But it’s too little, too late, and I fear this CD won’t create any converts (the best way to do that is give a youngster the soundtrack to American Graffiti). These are the kind of inoffensive covers I would expect on a PBS telethon, not from this group.

photo by Rony Schram

Under the Streetlamp
Boyz II Men
Sony Masterworks
1 disc | 10 tracks | 29:09
released October 20, 2017
to order, visit Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, or Apple

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