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Makes You Wanna Shout 

Isley Brothers boxed set tells the whole story

click to enlarge Blast from the past  the Isley Brothers rock the fashion world as well as the music world
  • Blast from the past the Isley Brothers rock the fashion world as well as the music world

Though they have achieved much commercial success over the years, the Isley Brothers have continually suffered from Rodney Dangerfield syndrome; they have never gotten the respect they deserve. This boxed set has a chance of rectifying the public misconception, revealing the Isley Brothers to be brilliant innovators and trendsetters -- as they have been for decades.

Few acts in popular music matter for longer than a few years. The Isley Brothers created crucial music in the '50s, '60s and '70s, and they continue to perform and record into the present. It's Your Thing covers all of the pertinent eras and is a decent overview of a distinguished career.

"Shout," the group's first hit, would have been enough to immortalize the Isleys. This 1959 gospel-secular rave up is still thrilling to hear. Much of the Isleys' early career was marked by good rocking soul, skirting the popular music of the '60s, and adding as much to the sound as it borrowed. "Testify" crosses "Shout" with James Brown. "This Old Heart of Mine" is a lovely and compelling hit from their brief Motown era.

Of particular interest on disc one are two cuts: "Who's That Lady" is the little-known, calypso-inflected version of what would later become a huge hit for the Brothers, "That Lady" (disc two). It is fascinating to hear, in its infancy, a version of a song which later became a standard. "Move Over and Let Me Dance" is notable not for its originality (actually, it is relatively nondescript), but because it is one of several songs in this box featuring the guitar work of the then-unknown Jimi Hendrix. Though his style was still developing, his licks are easily recognizable; he was already well on his way to becoming the most emotionally expressive guitar player of our time.

In 1969, the Brothers left the major labels and opted to revamp their own label, T-Neck records, a rather bold move in an industry which frowned upon allowing performers artistic control. This resulted in the song "It's Your Thing," an enormous hit and a huge move toward popularizing positive African-American messages and getting radio airplay for a funkier sound. Perhaps not as cutting-edge as, say, James Brown, the Isleys, nevertheless, with this song and many to follow, provided a soundtrack to the black experience during the rise of black power.

Disc 2 begins with a high point, "That Lady," a song which was wonderfully inescapable in 1973. It sounds as fresh today as it did then. The secret was the emergence of younger Isley Brother, the diminutive guitarist Ernie, who played with a soaring, high-pitched style that is positively gripping in its intensity. His playing is gorgeous, like an opera soprano doing backing vocals, and never was it put to better use than on this song.

During the '70s, the Brothers went through a period which was, in fact, cutting-edge, but in execution, not that interesting; they were a black band doing soft-funk versions of white singer-songwriters' hits, including songs by James Taylor, Steven Stills, and Seals and Croft. The Isleys' versions have held up about as well as the originals. For example, the wimpy "Summer Breeze" sounds dated (though Ernie's guitar is great), while "Love the One You're With" works well with its Motown-like arrangement.

Disc two contains some lesser known but excellent tracks, like the gutsy funk of "Work To Do," the clever funky soul of "Lay Away" (which does steal some from "Want Ads," put out by the Honeycone the year before) and 1974's "Live It Up." "For the Love of You" is a schmaltzy love song and a precursor to the unnecessary later Isley records.

Which leads to disc three. Skip it. Its content can be summed up by the title of the song and album from 1983, Between the Sheets. This is jazzy, synth-heavy, make-out music, all heavy panting and pick-up lines, I'm-a-sensitive-male-who-will-make-your-body-sing-if-you'd-only-let-me type stuff. The music sounds dated and uninspired. Occasionally, Ernie's guitar will save the day, as on "Voyage to Atlantis," and sometimes, a salvageable hit arises, like "Caravan of Love." Otherwise, this stuff is nothing special.

As with any boxed set, there are some unexpected gems and inexcusable gaps. Among the missing are the great '60s heartbreaker "She's Gone," the original version of "Nobody But Me" (which became a huge hit for the Human Beinz) and the funky '70s hit "Pop That Thang." And the third disc is superfluous. Still, this set provides proof of the ongoing importance of the extremely talented songwriters and performers known collectively as the Isley Brothers. They were a meaningful and influential group -- not just a hit machine.

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