Hip-O Select’s 2010 release The Solo Albums, Vol. 1 combines Smokey Robinson’s first two post-Miracles albums - 1973’s Smokey and its 1974 sequel, Pure Smokey -- on one CD. Arriving between Smokey’s glorious late-period singles with the Miracles and 1975’s trend-setting Quiet Storm, these two LPs tend to get overlooked in the grand scheme of things -- particularly because they didn’t burn up the charts, producing no big hit singles -- but this disc proves they’re compelling transitional albums, records where Robinson finds his solo voice while coming to terms with the shifting sounds of the time. Of the two, Smokey is a tentative step forward, carrying clear remnants of his latter-day music with the Miracles, which shouldn’t come as a great surprise considering that it’s anchored by “Sweet Harmony,” a tune he wrote about and for the Miracles but was persuaded by Motown A&R’s Suzanne de Passe to keep for himself. From there, Robinson built a full LP, using Willie Hutch as his co-producer and writing a clutch of songs with Marvin Tarplin, his co-author on several Miracles hits. Certainly, the rich, gorgeous harmonies of “Sweet Harmony” consciously evoke the Miracles but the group is heard elsewhere too, in the bright bounce of “Wanna Know My Mind” and in its covers of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and a medley of “Never My Love/Never Can Say Goodbye,” both bringing to mind Motown’s habit of recycling contemporary hits. These echoes of the past are comforting, particularly because they’re surrounded by modernity, thanks in part to Hutch’s lush, layered production but also Smokey’s willingness to embrace the shifting times, naturally favoring smooth soul to gritty funk, letting it escalate to an almost cinematic scale and, more importantly, not shying away from subjects he’d never tackle during the ‘60s whether it’s his family or the saga of a teenage runaway. It’s not a bold break into maturity on the level of What’s Going On or Music of My Mind but rather a transitional album, and a fascinating one at that, suggesting the path he would take going forward. Pure Smokey consolidates Smokey Robinson’s progressions on Smokey, retaining the adventurous maturity of subject matter -- in particular, Robinson remains fixated on family, paying tribute to the sister who raised him on “It’s Her Turn to Live,” noting the passing generations on “She’s Only a Baby Herself,” and expressing “The Love Between Me and My Kids” -- but moving firmly into the present with his music. Apart from the closing “A Tattoo,” which was co-produced by Hutch, Pure Smokey is helmed by Smokey himself and he creates a seamless blend of smoothed-out disco and gorgeous soft soul, the former firmly within the commercial realm of 1974 and the latter creating the sound he would coin Quiet Storm on his next LP. Here, Smokey favors lively beats over slow sways -- even the midtempo numbers carry a bounce to their rhythm -- yet these insistent, danceable rhythms convey an element of seduction thanks to Smokey’s velvet delivery, a smoothness that’s undeniable in his vocals and arrangements. So smooth is Pure Smokey that it’s easy to overlook its subtle innovations in subject and music, but that’s what makes it a rich, enduring LP: it goes down easy but pays back greater dividends upon close listening.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine