Smokey Robinson

Smokey & Friends

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Smokey & Friends seems like it's as much an American Idol judges and mentors project -- or a sequel to Randy Jackson's Music Club -- than a celebration of Smokey Robinson's career. Produced by Jackson, Smokey duets with his guests on fresh versions of popular compositions he wrote during the early '60s through the early '80s, popularized by Smokey himself -- with and without the Miracles -- or other artists, namely the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. The array of vocal matchups alternates between suitable and, yeah, peculiar. For an instance of the latter, Steven Tyler wails, screeches, and ad libs all over "You Really Got a Hold on Me" while Nicole Scherzinger, a prominent background voice, takes a reverent approach that verges on solemn. Not only is it a poor matchup with Smokey's typically sweet and steady delivery, but it's the song where the recording method -- the vocalists didn't record together -- is most obvious. Smokey gets the best results with the veteran R&B women, Ledisi ("Ooh Baby Baby") and Mary J. Blige ("Being with You"), while pairings with the likes of Elton John ("The Tracks of My Tears") and James Taylor ("Ain't That Peculiar") are livelier than expected but forgettable. The noteworthy guests aren't limited to singers. Among the backing musicians are Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, John Mayer, Cornelius Mims, Jim Keltner, and Jackson himself. The instrumental support is mostly middle-of-the-road adult contemporary R&B without any conscious attempt to sound retro. One deviation -- "Get Ready," where Smokey is joined by Gary Barlow -- slathers modern dance-pop coloring to dismal effect. Compared to the originals, or even the better covers released during the intervening years, these versions are pleasant if sterile. Had everyone recorded together, the set would have at least benefited from some unforced spontaneity.

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