Michael McDonald

Wide Open

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Wide Open is Michael McDonald's first album in nearly a decade, following Soul Speak by nine years, but a better benchmark would be Blue Obsession, the last album of original material he released. That record arrived in 2000, long before McDonald's reputation was revived by both yacht rocking satirists and R&B hipsters -- elements that barely factor into the sound of Wide Open, although their existence may have convinced McDonald to leave behind his stroll through the '60s soul songbook. Although he remains firmly grounded in blue-eyed soul, Wide Open also encompasses the slick open-road rockers of the Doobie Brothers and occasionally dabbles in some unexpected sounds from McDonald. "Just Strong Enough" ends with a spin on a New Orleans funeral march, "Honest Emotion" conjures a hazy Laurel Canyon sunset, "Blessing in Disguise" splices Sting with acid jazz, and "Too Short" nods at percolating African rhythms. Not one of these is new, per se, but they are new to McDonald, and give Wide Open a fresher feel than McDonald's overcooked (but well-intentioned) solidarity anthem "Free a Man." Nevertheless, the fact that he felt the need to voice support for the downtrodden, not to mention threading recovery speak into "Find It in Your Heart," gives McDonald a vitality on record that otherwise feels like a proud throwback to his halcyon days. While he happily trades on the slow-burning R&B grooves and soft rock melodicism that made him a star in the '70s and '80s, there's not much of a feeling of pandering nostalgia here. Instead, McDonald seems to be integrating all his personas -- the soul true believer, the godfather of smooth -- in a record that not only feels true but, song for song, is sturdier than nearly all of the albums he recorded at his popular peak.

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