The Complete Michael McDonald Review, Pt. 2: Soul Speak
by JD Ryznar
Creator, Yacht Rock. Host, Beyond Yacht Rock.
I fucking love Michael McDonald. As with most music fans, a half-second of his voice can make me smile. That’s why I’m reviewing every Michael McDonald Album, track-by-track, in backwards chronological order, indulging in a fantasy world where Michael McDonald slowly returns to relevance. Last time, we looked at Wide Open. In this installment, I’m checking out his album of non-Motown soul covers and originals.
Either he shoved a nine volt battery up his butt, or Michael McDonald LOVES the music he’s singing on Soul Speak. I’ve never heard or read him talk about this album, but I can just tell by the way he sings it - he’s blowing this shit up with that signature McDynamite. This is the vocal performance equivalent of a six-year-old opening presents on Christmas morning. He's a geeky fan going buck wild on his obsession. Bear in mind, this is a 70s legacy artist recording in 2008, so there are going to be some real pits, but as a whole package - Soul Speak paints a clear picture of Michael McDonald as a music fan.
First out of the beard is a barfingly intense interpretation of the George Michael/Aretha Franklin duet, “Knew You Were Waiting.” The song is badass as is, but when Michael McDonald tries to pay homage to the powerful performances in the original, he doesn’t try to match them. Nope. He COMBINES THEM into one vocal explosion. I’ve never heard McDonald do anything quite as untethered as his scream in the closing vamp. I’m gonna try to figure out how to make it my ringtone.
He’s sprinting to start a marathon here. As the mellow recreation of the electric piano from Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” lulls you into thinking he’s putting down the baritone jackhammer, McDonald busts into the lyrics with such exuberance, it’s like he’s doing an impression of what Stevie Wonder would sound like if he suddenly gained his sight while singing this song. The electric guitar melody at the end of every chorus rocks crazy hard, but it’s put to shame at 2:45, when McDonald vomits another untethered scream. I can’t believe he does that two songs in a row. I’m on board.
Musically, things do go down a notch as we move on to a cover of the Teddy Pendergrass 1980 hit “Love TKO,” a crushing breakup song sung from the perspective of a fool having lost his girl for the third time. The music is full-on blaxploitation lovemaking scene, with the rich strings and 90’s Snoop Dogg samplable slow groove. But try telling Michael McDonald’s lungs we’re trying to take a breather. He’s still belting full blast, earning him the award for the loudest heartbroken fool to ever set foot in the recording studio.
You know how parents are always sushing their young children, and the kids might get quiet for a second, but then they forget and start screaming at the top of their lungs again? Well, a lot of the music on this album is that parent, and Michael McDonald’s voice is that amped up kid. The cover of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” is the most successful one yet in calming him down, but occasional outbursts of that McTensity prove that this beast will not be tamed.
But that spirit sinks hard on the next track “Still Not Over You (Getting Over Me),” an original. Gotta be careful slipping an original song onto an album of legendary covers. It’s like sneaking a turd on a stick into a bouquet. McDonald does his best to sell this one, but he’s just lining up a royalty check.
“Get me a nine volt and some Vaseline,” someone must have said if albums were recorded live and in order. Because that enthusiastic kid is back singing to the ends of the Earth as he performs Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life.” I’d be jazzed, too, because he actually got Stevie into the studio to update his original harmonica solo. Such is an appropriate occasion to belt.
We get another enthusiasm drop with “Into the Mystic.” On an album of soul, to cover Van Morrison is like tossing a Train song into a punk rock tribute album. You might appreciate Train and their fine-tuned poetry most call lyrics, but if punk rock’s in your veins to the point you record almost an entire album of some of the greatest punk songs ever, your cover of “Hey, Soul Sister!” is not going to have the same aplomb. I think Michael McDonald really, really loves “Into the Mystic” But Michael McDonald bleeds soul, so this attempt to put his stank on Van Morrison’s Fauxlk Soul style betrays McDonald’s higher talents.
Those higher talents are on display with his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song you want to hear all of your favorite singers make their own. This is such a simple song, an exercise in restraint followed by an eruption of emotion. Where much of this album is HOLY SHIT MT. ST. HELENS FUCKING BLEW UP, “Hallelujah” is Kilauea: a long, slow flow that you know is occasionally going to burst into a beautiful display.
McDonald doesn’t bask in that glory long. He immediately goes to dark self reflection with another original, “The Enemy Within.” This is a preview of the self-stabbing bouts of crashing esteem that will be his 2017 Wide Open album. Hey, this song says, we’re all fuck-ups, we got a fucking piece of shit in us and if you don’t keep that fucker in check, he’s gonna make you murder stuff. I’m paraphrasing, but this is a dark one, and I’m kind of into it. It’s all wrapped in late-eighties style sultry production, like something you might find buried deep in any white male solo artists’ 1988 album. After all the hits and jams, Corey Hart or Don Henley or Steve Winwood might stick in something that sounds like this, a shameful saunter through the heat of the night of the city.
After the sagging mid-section of Soul Speak, Michael McDonald returns to the summit of Mount Roo with his exuberant take on Jackie Wilson’s soul staple “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher)” The excitement of the music, a pretty faithful reconstruction of the original, speaks for itself, and McDonald allows this excitement to dominate, but indulges in some of his great, signature falsetto flips in the choruses. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you happy to be listening to a Michael McDonald album.
He follows that up with the polar opposite: a slow, joyless original called “Only God Can Help Me Now.” I mean, how melodramatic is that? This is just another song about a fool’s breakup. Dude, relax! You’ll meet another lady!
Well, I guess God helped him a little bit, because the next song is “Baby Can I Change My Mind.” Here, the fool thinks he sees a way to save his relationship, and the song sounds hopeful. This may actually work out for him. The badass production of Tyrone Davis’ 1968 hit has been Wav-a-fied into an adult contemporary bore. We’re twelve songs deep into a fourteen track album and I think Michael McDonald’s enthusiasm is waning as much as mine is. When you sprint to start a marathon, you tend to crawl over the finish line. Terrible metaphor. But I’m keeping it.
Okay, here’s the problem with these cover albums, as perfectly demonstrated in the penultimate track, “Redemption Song.” Bob Marley and the Wailers performed this song with an elegant simplicity. Michael McDonald’s version is a thick showoffy production that takes everything away from his awesome voice. Let that voice shine, Soul Speak! This song gets particular awkward as McDonald sometimes kind of slips into a Jamaican accent. There is a flourish of Fender Rhodes in this track, though, that reminds me of the good old Michael McDonald days and made me wish the concept for “Redemption Song” would have just been Mike and his e-piano.
My wishes are sort of answered with the final track, “You Don’t Know Me,” the song made most famous by Ray Charles in 1962 and covered about one hundred more times, most notably by Kenny Loggins on his solo debut “Celebrate Me Home” from 1977. It’s also the last track on the Loggins album, and probably many of the other artists who have covered it - which seems to have been every artist. But Michael McDonald takes the super simple spirit of this song to heart, performing a majority of it with simple voice and piano. Of course strings bust in at some point because this album, as is the case with the later works of most legacy artists, can’t help but indulge in bloat.
I always think putting “You Don’t Know Me” at the end of the album as kind of a slap in the face to an audience who just spent an hour of their lives accepting the invitation into a performer's soul. But as Michael McDonald challenges that we have failed to see the man he truly is, I disagree. After listening to this album, I have quite a clear, simple picture. And excuse me if my takeaway from this album is too bold, but I’m going to go out on a limb here. After spending an hour of my life with Soul Speak, I can confidently conclude: Michael McDonald likes soul music.