What's left for Michael McDonald after two albums of Motown covers? Plenty of soul standards that weren't recorded for Motown, plus several other songs that are "soulful" but not strictly soul, and that's just what he offers on Soul Speak, his 2008 sequel to his Motown sequel, 2004's Motown Two. Soul Speak shares the same basic sound and feel as the two Motown records -- it's all sleek, glassy grooves powered by pros -- and if it lacks the hint of looseness that made Two a superior record to its big brother, that's because Soul Speak isn't designed to be a party record like the Motown albums. As the covers of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" suggest, Soul Speak is a bit moodier and more contemplative than either of its Motown cousins, but that's a relative term: there are still plenty of sprightly, classy pop-soul grooves here, nice versions of "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" and Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" and "For Once In My Life" that keep Soul Speak moving. But where these brightly elegant grooves dominated on the Motown albums, they're used for coloring here, shading the covers of Cohen, Marley, and Van Morrison ("Into the Mystic") and three solid new originals from McDonald ("Only God Can Help Me Now," "Enemy Within," "Still Not Over You (Getting Over Me)"). Despite the soul in the title, this album recalls the warm soft rock that was his specialty in the early '80s as much as it does his recent soul, particularly because it does rely a little bit more on soft ballads (such as the excellent closer of the standard "You Don't Know Me"), and that is not a bad thing at all. Indeed, it could be argued that of his albums of the new millennium, Soul Speak comes the closest to capturing the sound and feel of Michael McDonald at his peak, all without ever sounding like a conscious re-creation of that time.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine