Dig it. This two-fer assembles two underappreciated Isley Brothers albums from 1971 and 1972, respectively. The Isleys left Motown in 1970 because they weren't necessarily thrilled with the control Berry Gordy asserted over their trademark sound. Givin' It Back and Brother, Brother, Brother are the first two releases on the revived Isleys imprint T-Neck. Both of these recordings are saturated in the hit pop tunes of the day, but although deeply associated with the artists who struck gold with them, here they are given treatments and arrangements that in some cases radically transform them. Givin' It Back is in your face from the jump with a medley of Neil Young's "Ohio" and Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun," clocking in at over nine minutes. Led by Ron's mellifluous tenor, the Isleys lay down a gospel groove à la Curtis Mayfield in front of a military snare drum and wah-wah guitar line. When the song fully kicks in, Isley's voice is pure anguish, and so is the harmony. It not only memorializes the tragic Kent State killings; it also memorializes those killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi only days later. This track winds with that insistent pulse, a hypnotic bassline, and a cosmic Hendrix/Buddy Guy-influenced blues lead. Ron himself moans and groans in deep soul pain and improvises in the long outro as "Machine Gun" takes over, with words from Jesus Christ himself: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." That this is only an opening cut is rather startling in itself. It's one of the high points for the Isleys in a very long career.
But it hardly stops here, because they follow it with two other stellar, completely innovative covers. First is a completely heart-rending reading of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," complete with a soul gospel intro covered in psychedelic reverb and blues harmony. It's a memorial hymn that feels like a eulogy in laid-back funky soul. "Lay Lady Lady" then utterly reinvents the rather boring Dylan tune (it's still a mystery as to why, with all the man's songs on Nashville Skyline, that was a hit single), and like the version of "Ohio" earlier, the Isleys' version tops the original (it also charted at number 33). In over ten minutes, they transform an ordinary four-chord tune with a single hook into a deeply wrought, sophisticated, utterly picaresque ode to sensuality. No, that's not heresy; it's simply true. "Spill the Wine" doesn't have the hard funk of the War version, but it nonetheless wears its Latin rhythms and sheen-like funk proudly, with a soul groove hovering over the top. The funk is more pronounced on Stephen Stills' "Nothing to Do But Today," with killer piano and drum breaks. And of course there's the now classic version of the songwriter's "Love the One You're With" to close it out.
Brother, Brother, Brother, far from being a poor-relation follow-up, is as deep and wide and heartfelt as Givin' It Back. In addition to the original trio of Ron, Rudolph, and O'Kelly, younger brothers Ernie and Marvin -- as well as cousin Chris Jasper -- joined the fold, making the need for a backing studio group null and void. Brother, Brother, Brother is solid from top to bottom. It's a less angry record, and more about the healing aspect of change, with its anchors being three tunes by Carole King. There's the title number that opens the set, which marries ethereal soul to the original pop melody, the medley of "Sweet Season/Keep on Walking," which makes its transition from one tune to the next seamlessly, and the singular reading of "It's Too Late," where they revise the tune as a deep soul breakup ballad (so utterly sympathetic and innovative are these versions that the divine Ms. King must have gotten goosebumps when she heard these resetting of her songs). As with "Ohio/Machine Gun" on the previous album, the healing theme reaches across the divide of race and class, continuing with the Isleys' take on Jackie DeShannon's "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" (with its classic touches of Motown and early Detroit soul in the backing vocals). Also notable on this date are the funky Brothers originals "Work to Do" and"Pop That Thang," which set the Isleys' trademark up on the corner in bright lights, almost announcing their breakthrough album, 3 + 3, that followed in 1973. This is one of those reissues that slips out into the marketplace and doesn't get noticed often enough. Seek this out; you won't be sorry.