Don’t ask me what’s happened to Martha & the Vandellas. I can’t figure it out either. Here’s their latest album — a more respectable package than their last, Natural Resources, but another collection of odds and ends carelessly wrapped, the tissue paper fillers spilling out at the seams and packed so thick you almost chuck the whole thing out before you find the good parts.
Perhaps it is the inevitable result of the way Black Magic was organized, or disorganized. Although there is no documentation — only a “coordinator” is credited — the album is apparently the work of several different producers or production teams, each working on their own material. For instance, “Bless You,” written by the Corporation, was also produced by them, just as the other previously issued single, “In and Out of My Life,” was produced and written by the same team, George Gordy and Lawrence Brown — all credited on the 45s, not the album. With a likelihood of two other producers contributing to the album, and even a cut (an uninspired, tired reworking of George Harrison’s “Something”) retrieved from the last LP, the final product has a predictably paste-up, uneven quality. This is the sort of barely interested handling given unproven groups with one hit single. Martha & the Vandellas surely deserve better treatment, and that they’ve been shrugged off like this by Motown for the past few years just ain’t right. The heat wave may be over, but that’s no reason to freeze the poor girls out.
In spite of this, Black Magic contains some very nice work and Martha Reeves, at least, survives (the tendency is to build up the Vandellas, Sandra Tilley and Lois Reeves, with an electronic “depth” device that makes them sound like an anonymous chorus, or place the instrumental track between them and Martha, burying the girls). The opening track, “No One There,” stands out as perhaps the only one worthy of the group, certainly the best thing they’ve done since their 1970 single, “I Should Be Proud.” The understated arrangement and style are reminiscent of the early Supremes or Martha’s own “My Baby Loves Me” — bright and crisp. Lyrically, it uses the same sort of specific imagery that distinguished “I Should Be Proud” (left alone, Martha is tormented by “Cars that use the driveway just to turn around/Talking to an emptiness makes such a lonely sound”) and leaves you with a vivid picture of a woman “lying in my darkened room with love I long to share.” Martha doesn’t sound as powerful as she once did; the intensity has leveled out and much of the toughness is gone, but she retains a warm, rich, insinuating quality that makes even the opening hums and moans utterly delicious Because it tries too hard to recapture the old Martha & the Vandellas feeling, the second cut, “Your Love Makes It All Worthwhile,” doesn’t quite make it. Just when you start jumping around thinking, “Live Wire!” “Quicksand!” you notice the song’s too thin, not half loud enough, has a tambourine instead of hand-clapping and Martha lacks the proper grit. Oh well.
The second best cut, written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and, I suspect, produced by them, is “Tear It Down.” It begins like a Valerie Simpson number: just a few notes on the piano, a thumping drum and Martha announcing, “I wanna sing a song about pride — listen,” and goes on to include the best use of the Vandellas and one of the tastiest production jobs here. “In and Out of My Life,” the current single, is respectable but bland. Martha comes on strong in this context and the sound, especially the bass line, is nice, but, finally, it just sort of sits there.
I don’t even want to talk about the rest of this stuff: the silly “Bless You”; a strangely out-of-joint, terribly embarrassing version of “I Want You Back” (I’d like to see the Jackson 5 try “Heat Wave”); a lifeless “Anyone Who Had a Heart” that should have been great; “Benjamin,” which sounds like a moderately intelligent show tune but a show tune nevertheless.
I don’t understand it: Martha & the Vandellas, one of the great groups of all time, shuffling out here with this half-assed collection of tunes while the Undisputed Truth are treated like royalty. Maybe it’s just Motown Politics. Or maybe the group is just very untogether right now. Oh, come and get these memories.