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R&B

Raising the standards of Motown

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November 20, 2007

Boyz II Men

Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA (Decca)

The Motown catalog is beginning to rival the Great American Songbook in terms of the sheer number of artists taking it on lately. But unlike the standards, which have been twisted into many interesting shapes over the decades, the original Hitsville versions are imprinted on our collective conscious by their enduring omnipresence. Covers often pale in comparison, especially when they hew so closely to the masters, as former Motown artists Boyz II Men prove on their new album. Producer Randy Jackson of "American Idol" fame gives the metronomically perfect work of the top session guys a pretty sheen. And save the Four Tops medley there has yet to be a match for Levi Stubbs - the Boyz sound as strong and harmonious as ever. A few a cappella flourishes and altered vocal arrangements identify the songs as covers, yet it's unclear why they decided to do that. There are a couple of curveballs. Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky" and the Boyz's own "End of the Road" receive the full a cappella treatment, with the former wilting under the weight of the voices and the latter soaring. And Debarge's dreamy "All This Love" is retrofitted with horns and more prominent Spanish guitar. But the motivation question lingers. While the originals remain the gold standard, if you feel compelled to hear newer recordings, you could do much worse than taking this wholly pleasant "Journey." [Sarah Rodman]

ESSENTIAL "All This Love"

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