Michael Bolton was before my time. I know this because Office Space had a character who was ashamed to share a name with him, and because half the laughs for his surprise appearance in SNL's “Jack Sparrow” skit were Because It's Him, and because I haven't actually heard any of his own music. I think it's supposed to be bad, which I assumed was because it's “soft rock” (can you believe those words were once combined?) or sappy, but a quick YouTube lesson reveals it to also have a Pat Boone component. I didn't know he sang R&B, and not just any R&B–his first hit was 1988's “(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay,” and he added a hair metal guitar solo. (Sidebar: he didn't “steal the real artists' money,” guys. His bland middle-age fans never would've bought Otis Redding records in the first place. They're buying for the whiteness. Anyway.)
R&B is back or whatever, and “Jack Sparrow” revealed him to have that marketable Healthy Sense of Humor (a la Wilson Phillips in Bridesmaids), so naturally he's making a move for '10s legitimacy with his new Ain't No Mountain High Enough: A Tribute to Hitsville, a Motown covers album. I'm now going to listen to it right now without…what did George Michael call it?…prejudice.
“Ain't No Mountain High Enough”
In 2013, legitimacy is everything, where 1990 just didn't feel the need. So an actual R&B singer, Kelly Rowland, the Dean to Beyonce's Frank, classes things up here. It's actually pretty nice, although Bolton's voice has a hoarse gulp locked in a 1990 cellar with notes of Garth Books hiccup in it — obviously overdoing it. A little gummy, but the harmonies on the chorus are actually pop in the sticky sense; you look forward to them even if the individual voices aren't very interesting. A good opening salvo, though it feels wrong to not have Ryan Seacrest introducing it.
“How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”
This otherwise straining-to-be-faithful Marvin Gaye cover sounds transmitted from the bottom of a cocktail glass — the piano's way too scrubbed (the solo particularly sounds beamed in from like, a MIDI saloon) and the voice just isn't sexy. Bolton's graduated from outright insult to clean-cut imitation. If this is his Vegas resumé I think he got the job. (Although Raphael Saadiq's soundalike “Sure Hope You Mean It” a few years back showed you could reinvent this tune completely and with grit.)
“Ain't Nothin Like the Real Thing”
This is some kind of bizarre wedding band demo reel. I've never heard covers executed this faithfully on purpose, and I don't get the purpose at all. Unless Bolton never did originals? The proto-disco flutes and strings on this old Gaye chestnut are in flashing neon now, and someone named Melanie Fiona injects a lot less personality into her bits than Kelly Rowland did. Speaking of portfolios, are this and that Big Boi thing Rowland's newest works? God help us but this album has a legitimate shot at being par with that ludicrous project.
“Gotta Keep Dreamin'”
Sorry, sorry, I only just now noticed the irony of including on this work a song called “Ain't Nothin Like the Real Thing.” Carry on. This song wasn't very noticeable but he whines like Springsteen over the fade. Most constipated melismas ever. And his voice is what he was known for?
“Nowhere to Run”
More American Idol-style showboating, I can practically hear those diagonal-up-from-the-floor camera angles and see a number to text across the screen. Martha and the Vandellas were fucking awesome though. Unhelpful: the late night talk show horns.
“You Keep Me Hanging On”
What about this recording would make someone play it instead of the original? Do people like Bolton think about that stuff? You're not gonna get a Best New Music dude! But really, why does the Supremes' original have more Yeah Yeah Yeahs-style guitar? At least be tastelessly modern, Bolton, you plaster casting motherfuck.
“What's Going On”
OK — this is bad. First of all, there's no way to do this fucking song anymore. Is it a blessing or a curse that Fred Durst and Aaron Lewis have already ruined it? Does Bolton's look better by contrast? No. It looks like the billionth version of a song everyone already decided on a context for when Rolling Stone made its parent album the highest ranking soul record on their 500 Greatest Albums List. I hear Bolton has an outside shot at #499 if these tracks continue perfectly verbatim. (j/k).
“Tracks of My Tears”
Smokey Robinson's fare is harder to make offensive, although come on, it's just not meant for a long-lost Collective Soul member channeling Dave Matthews. The original is more rattley, with women on it, and both the man and women pushed to the back with a sweet whisper that doesn't try to dominate the room. The horns on the Bolton sound like they're advertising a cruise ship. When he neeeeeeeds you, he really neeeeeeeeeeeeds you.
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)”
Stevie deserves better, though he's also hard to ruin. Great original, but you can't help wondering why Bolton didn't just do a full Kelly Rowland duets album. She could've been his Alison Krauss! Boltron sounds like a robot; the joyous, readymade music is no excuse to phone it in.
“Money (That's What I Want)”
This is the stiffest Big Number I've ever heard, and it's like not like another version of this song needed to be on the planet, either. In music, trashing's so much more valuable than recycling. Especially when a John-Mayer-doing-“Beat It” style shred solo is called for. This song is from 1959, for chrissake. Either have the balls to go full sacrilege or leave the damn thing alone.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
This is the most appropriate tune on the whole record. The falsetto and bluesy runs here Bolton actually nails, with genuine human-sounding aplomb (love those “loo-oo-ose my mind” frills), and the organ-and-strings stomp gets just the right amount of adornment. Is it any surprise he imitates Fogerty with more comfort and breathing room than the other singers here? Just go back to hair metal, dude. Force something avant-nutso out of Kenny G. Or grow your hair back out and tie yourselves together. May Andy Samberg return you from whence you came.