Let's face it: Michael McDonald takes a lot of guff. From Saturday Night Live satires, to YouTube parodies, everyone wants to take a shot at one of the most distinctive voices of the modern recording age. I guess that it is the price he pays for being an icon. I mean, no one does humorous impressions of Jack Johnson, Josh Ritter, or Damien Rice, because frankly: how many people could tell? McDonald also seems to rate the cheap shots because a certain brand of alt-music fan equates him with the anti-hip. If Michael McDonald's music represents anything, it is pure, unadulterated emotion, something the ironic generation avoids like a vampire shuns sunlight.
McDonald's last recording of all-original music was one of his best: in a back-to-basics setting that was a relief after some overproduced missteps, Blues Obsession offered up the soul-pop that has made him a legend. Since then, and since signing with Motown, he has released two commercially successful recordings of, er, Motown classics. With Soul Speak, another record of primarily cover tunes, he expands the soul spectrum to non-Motown tunes, including versions of "Love TKO" (Gip Noble Jr./Cecil Womack/Linda Womack), "Into The Mystic" (Van Morrison), "Hallelujah" (Leonard Cohen), and the Eddie Arnold/Cindy Walker chestnut "You Don't Know Me." All are infused with McDonald's velvet rasp and impassioned but tasteful performances that should be studied by the American Idol generation as an example of how to use melisma and not abuse it.
If you haven't guessed by now, I am a confirmed fan. I even think his piano playing is underrated. But I admit to being frustrated. In recent performance at New York's intimate Blue Note club, it was patently obvious that McDonald's self-penned hits like "What A Fool Believes," "I Keep Forgetting," "Minute By Minute," etc., were every bit as classic as the boomer-approved cover tunes. In fact they were more exciting, given the well-played but somewhat pedestrian arrangements of the soul staples. Leaving aside the question of his label's influence on material choice (Soul Speak contains at least two more Motown tunes), it begged the question, "Where is the new Michael McDonald material?" This record offers only three originals that, if not on a par with his greatest work, stand unashamedly among the included standards.
So in an open letter to one of my favorite artists I ask: what is going on? Are these radio tested tunes just a safe bet by the label in these economically risky times? Is there writer's block involved?" Between a Michael McDonald tune being played somewhere in the world virtually every minute of the day, the commercials, and the guest appearances, I can't believe that the former-Doobie Brother is buying Q-tips on sale. So allow me to say to Michael (may I call you Michael?), if you can write, please do; the world needs another "It Keeps You Runnin'" more than it needs another version of "Higher and Higher"--even sung by you. If you are in a writing slump, how about covering some more obscure but deserving tunes, like by Allen Toussaint, Paul Thorn, and Pat McLaughlin--you get the idea.
That said, Soul Speak's de-harmonized version of "Walk On By" shows how the familiar can be re-imagined, and Tyrone Davis' "Baby Can I Change My Mind" is a lesser-known tune certainly worthy of revival. I guess the few McDonald tunes here will have to hold me until next time. • Michael Ross