Smokey Robinson doesn’t want to be a relic and that’s understandable. He deserves for people to know his role as a chief architect of the Motown Sound and bard of the American romantic songbook, while remaining a vital, inspiring voice today.
Therein lay the catalyst and challenge of “Smokey & Friends,” which finds him pairing with artists young and old on classics he composed, performed or both. Some duets boost the mission while others backfire.
On “Cruisin’,” Jessie J offers a spoken-word testimony that includes how joining Robinson is “a dream come true.” It’s pleasant enough but hard to get past the pedestal upon which he’s been placed. On “Quiet Storm,” John Legend intones: “Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson one of the greatest poets of all-time. Smokey, it’s an honor to sing with you.” Just sing — that’s honor enough.
The collection clicks when the gushing takes a backseat to grooving. Steven Tyler approaches “You Really Got a Hold on Me” less reverentially and the result is something beautifully bawdy and bluesy. It’s less of a remake and more a reboot that doesn’t instill longing for the original. Other songs that work and curb pining for the past are “The Way You Do (The Things You Do)” with CeeLo Green, which romps and rolls in a sonic workout that respects the Temptations’ version while adding something new, and “Ain’t That Peculiar,” which ain’t as peculiar as it might seem to feature James Taylor and the low-key gravitas he brings.
The same can’t be said about takes on two of Robinson’s most enduring, essential works: Elton John is his soulful best on “The Tracks of My Tears” and Sheryl Crow delivers Motown-worthy harmonies on “The Tears of A Clown,” yet you’ll find yourself waiting for Robinson to come in.
The album proves Robinson retains that vital, inspiring voice and provides nice moments. The biggest success would come if it sends new fans back to the originals, which were not only nice, but necessary.
Smokey Robinson, “Smokey & Friends” (Verve Music Group)
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