Isley Brothers ‘Masterpiece’ / ‘Smooth Sailin’ 2CD (Robinsong/Cherry Red) 3/5

isley-brothersAfter the major success of the ‘Between the sheets’ album in 1983, the Isley Brothers underwent a period of significant internal unrest, resulting in the unthinkable. After decades together a split occurred between rival factions. The founding members of the group remained and these included Ronald, Rudolph and O’Kelly Isley. A second, breakaway group formed comprising brother-in-law Chris Jasper, Ernie and Marvin Isley. While the latter enjoyed immediate success in the UK with a hit single, ‘Caravan of Love’ the former went through a transitional phase in their illustrious career and it is these two sides that are the primary focus of attention on this re-issue. Both date from the mid-1980s when technological changes in the instrumentation deployed meant synths and drum machines were the new norm. Unfortunately for groups with a distinctive sound such as the Isleys adapting to this new reality proved to be an uncomfortable experience and the first album showcased here is a pretty non-descript effort from a production perspective and even their glorious voice harmonies are only just recognisable amid the excessively glossy hi-tech sound. Rising above the below average material is a song by Skip Scarborough, ‘My best was good enough’. In fairness, there were still some top session musicians on board such as several of the Quincy Jones horn section lead by Jerry Hey as well as veteran arranger Gene Page. In comparison to its predecessor, ‘Masterpiece’ from 1985 fared poorly only securing the lower echelons of the Billboard top two hundred. A single, ‘Colder are my nights’, nestled outside the top ten of the R & B charts and is an above average song, though nothing on a par with the Isley classics of old.

However, the musical quality brightens up considerably on the second offering from 1987, ‘Masterpiece’, and this was in no short part due to the non-negligible contribution of singer-songwriter Angela Winbush, formerly of Rene and Angela, and now Mrs. Ronald Isley. Groove ballads were now the flavour of the day and Winbush composed some excellent material at the same time as releasing a stunning solo debut, ‘Sharp’, in the same year. The title track of ‘Smooth Sailin’ became a number three R & B hit and this time round the Isleys distinctive harmonies were given a subtle, yet nonetheless modern update that long-time fans both recognised and appreciated. A reprise of a Rene and Angela tune, ‘Come my way’, became a second single and integrates into the cohesive whole of the album concept. It is in fact the slower ballads that work best of all and ‘Send a message’ revealed a return to form of sorts. Detailed inner sleeve notes come courtesy of Mojo journalist and soul music aficionado Charles Waring.

Tim Stenhouse