More than its parts

Neither One Of Us was the last album Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded for Motown, released after they’d left for Buddha Records in New York. It was a solid commercial success, although the group’s highest chart positions and best-remembered singles would come in the years they spent with Buddha. It’s an absolutely classic slab of early seventies soul, and I have to say I’d almost forgotten exactly what that entailed before I decided to spend a few months paying close attention to this record.

This was the absolute height of Motown’s production line, with the 1960s recipe of slick arrangements performed by brilliant musicians enhanced by an increasing level of production fidelity—the studio standards had always been high, but by now albums were being mixed in the expectation (or hope, at least) that the tracks would be played on a decent quality domestic hi-fi system, rather than a crappy car radio. A new style called funk was already well established as the hip dance-floor genre most enjoyed by African-American club audiences, and although an album like this was aimed at a mainstream, multi-racial listenership, its deep grooves and riff-based arrangements were heavily influenced by funk.

Gladys Knight’s singing is almost impossible to do justice to by talking, so I’m not going to try. Her performances here show great technical accomplishment, but the singing of this era was far less prone to ostentatious displays of virtuosity—instead, Knight’s expressive embellishments are delivered in such a way as to sound as natural and spontaneous as possible. It’s as though the words just can’t contain the meanings in her heart, which burst out around and between them in slurs, whoops, dynamic shifts, and a deployment of vocal fry redolent of the distortions of a clean, overdriven guitar.

The lyrics, for the most part, aren’t the equal of the singer, but Knight just sets them on fire, singing every syllable with incredible intensity and commitment. ‘Who Is She (And What Is She To You)’, written by Bill Withers and Stan McKenny, is the only song with the kind of clever verbal construction associated with the best of the American songbook, and some lines elsewhere are pretty ludicrous (especially in Frederick Long and Sylvia Moy’s ‘And This Is Love’). However, there’s a coherence to the selections here: this is a very carefully and smartly programmed album. None of the cuts takes off into the kind of fairyland typically inhabited by pop love songs. Instead, they summon a very grounded and apprehensible world of ordinary lives and experiences: although many of them focus on conventionally romantic themes, the love they describe is the kind that would be familiar to most of their listeners. Messy, difficult, consoling, and rooted in a shared experience of hard graft.

These isolated parts I’ve described could be the parts of many albums, good or bad. But they add up here to something exceptionally well-integrated and involving. I’ve had a poke around on the internet, and none of my usual sources can tell me who played on this album, or where it was recorded (which would more or less answer the question for a Motown record tracked in 1972). That’s how the system worked at the time, but a large part of this album’s success is a consequence of the superb feel of the studio musicians. Whether they are playing closely written parts or improvising quite freely within a sketched-out arrangement is impossible to guess at any given point, but their contribution is equally important either way. I’d listen to this record if it was just a collection of instrumentals, but with Knight’s extraordinarily beautiful singing gracing them, these tunes are just sublime.

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