“Blue Eyed Soul” is a term that’s been doing the rounds in the music industry as far back as the mid-‘60s to describe white artists whose influence is primarily drawn from African-American R&B. Throughout the ensuing decades, the mantle has been bestowed on everyone from the Bee Gees to Joss Stone and this month, everyone’s favourite early-‘90s mullet-sporting crooner Michael Bolton pays tribute to the hits of, well, Hitsville USA on Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – a collection of his takes on the cream of Motown’s stellar list of timeless hits.
Granted, he’s left the gloriously cascading mullet in the past where many would argue it belongs, but Bolton is still an artist a lot of people have a pretty hard time taking seriously. Ever the good sport though, he made a soft re-entry into the pop-culture consciousness a few years back with a healthy sense of humour about himself in a guest spot on one of Saturday Night Live’s infamous Digital Shorts (Bolton was brought in to sing the hook on a hip-hop track and kept getting sidetracked with movie references).
The thing about a record like Ain’t Not Mountain High Enough however, is that it doesn’t really need to exist. This may sound a little harsh but the influence of Motown has always been apparent in the dexterity of Bolton’s vocal acrobatics and being that there’s already a vast collection of tributes to the legendary label’s catalogue (three from Australia’s own Human Nature and another pair of records by Bolton sound-alike and former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald all in the last decade) do we really need another?
In all fairness to Bolton, vocally he can still cut the mustard. While there’s a definite husk to the timbre of his voice that wasn’t present when he was often seen shirtless in the rain back in 1992, this is not necessarily a bad thing and adds a little charm to his delivery that sets him apart. That being said, this record definitely plays like an extended karaoke set with the arrangements of all these songs scarcely varying at all from the now 50-year-old originals. Understandably there’s a certain reverence that is to be expected when using the hallowed Motown brand but other than his voice, unfortunately there really isn’t much that Bolton or any of the session players bring to these tunes that we haven’t heard hundreds of times before.
There are a couple of noteworthy collaborators he’s brought in for the project however. Acclaimed singer Leona Lewis plays the Tammi Terrell to Bolton’s Marvin Gaye on the collection’s title track and recent X-Factor winner Sam Bailey plays the same role on Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing. Australian shredder and former Michael Jackson guitarist Orianthi possibly provides the highlight of the record with a high-octane, riff-heavy take on Money (That’s What I Want) but despite the brass stabs, respectful doo-wop backing vocals and Orianthi’s wailing solo, it still sounds a little sterile.
All the hits you’d expect are represented here: What’s Going On?, Tracks Of My Tears, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Signed, Sealed, Delivered and the list goes on but unless you’re a little stuck as to what to buy mum for mother’s day this Sunday and she happens to be a MASSIVE Bolt-head, maybe just go back and re-listen to the soundtrack from The Big Chill to remember how truly great the Motown legacy is by, despite his best intentions, cutting Bolton out as the middle-man between you and the true sound of Detroit.