6 April 2004
The way they did the things they did
Anyone who has heard me sing (you know who you are) will not at all be anxious to repeat the experience; my voice on its best day can make a turnip weep, and it's been a while since I've had a good day, laryngeally speaking. So some might consider it cause for alarm that I've just taken delivery of six CDs of karaoke backgrounds.
But these aren't ordinary backgrounds by any stretch of the imagination: these are actual backing tracks from Motown hits, played by the genuine Funk Brothers, remixed and remastered by studio wizard Suha Gur. Each disc contains eight tunes in two-track mixes, instruments left, vocals right, perhaps for practice. And then, starting at track 9, the same tunes, mixed for stereo, minus the lead vocals.
If you're wondering why anyone would listen to these discs for any other purpose, wonder no more. Motown production techniques were remarkable for their time, and it simply hasn't been possible to observe them at close range up to now: Berry Gordy's primary interest was the mono singles mix, which he intended to knock your socks off, not to impress you with subtlety and detail. Stereo mixes were generally afterthoughts, and sometimes they didn't bother with them at all.
But since Suha Gur had to go back to the session tapes to produce these tracks, generation upon generation of murk and noise and glop and tape slap and God knows what else have simply disappeared. And without the primary distraction of the lead singer, you can delight in the Funk Brothers' instrumental work. I've got "My Guy" cranked up now, and with Mary Wells out of the room, the interplay between lead guitar and organ, nearly inaudible on the 45, has me grinning from here to there, thinking "Damn, but that's beautiful."
Not every tune comes across as perfectly seamless. In some of the sessions, both background and lead vocals were recorded on the same track, so leaving off the lead required leaving off the background as well. And sometimes a lead, usually Smokey Robinson, drifts in and out of the mix. But as a tool for studying the Sound of Young America, these discs, issued through The Singing Machine Company but not available on their Web site I got mine from amazon.com are at least as essential as the Funk Brothers documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. And who hasn't wanted to be Levi Stubbs or Martha Reeves for three minutes?Posted at 9:55 PM to Tongue and Groove