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THE O'JAYS
Imagination
US Music World / Sanctuary Urban, 2004

Made It Back - Repair Man - Imagination - Chauvinistic - Separate Ways - Why You Wanna Settle For Less - Busy Tonight - Busy Tonight - One Good Woman - I Would Rather Cry - The Christmas Song

This album is actually a LOT better than I expected. Their previous two outings on MCA and The Right Stuff / PIR were essential, and so it was always going to be a hard act to follow. Comparing this with their 1990s output generally, though, this is a strong O'Jays effort. What has irked me from the start is the fact that there are only 10 tracks, plus one Christmas song. We are not used to this now and so it comes as a bit of a shock. Ballads are rather thin on the ground, but the midtempos more than make up for it in numbers.

There are 2 tracks on here that, to me are a complete waste of valuable CD time - the nasty teeny R&B of "Repair Man" and the ghastly reggae flavoured "Busy Tonight". I don't care much for the Christmas song either - the old Scrooge that I am - and on a CD with a paltry 11 tracks that leaves us with only 8 songs. It's almost like the good old vinyl days, folks!

The chaps do a sterling job, as always, with the vocals. I always consider that they give a vintage performance and no-one could ask for more. What lets them down, I feel, is what I hear as an understated production in some places. I would prefer to hear real strings than some really cheap and cheesy style synths. Some tracks, although pleasant, lack and real kick and one or two seem to last a whimsy too long and thus make the track seem to plod sluggishly, which is a shame.

Track one is a pleasant opener whose piano / slap bass melody is more akin to Rahsaan Patterson than anything else, but this is a typically stylish and impressive outlet for Eddie, Walter and Eric to do their stuff. Track three was gripping from word go with its Philly overtones, but although I love this song there are two things that let it down: synthetic strings and it being a shade too long a track at nearly 7 minutes. Harmonies are tight and spine tingling, but something is lacking in the mix for me. This is just my opinion, though.

This is more than made up for by the KILLER stepper, "Imagination" which is an unashamed Philly excursion with its melodic feet rooted into the sort of feel woven into Lou Rawls' "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" and the use of vibes and warm 70s fusion-style keyboards is just brilliant. The hook is catchy a nd the bassline is irresistible. An essential song that will keep fans and steppers happy throughout the Autumn and Christmas period. Definitely the highlight of the album, and hats off to none other than Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for this. Although they have lost their own particular unique sound they have a trained ear for the Philly groove here. They also supply us with the ballad, "Why You Wanna Settle For Less", and the chilled piano refrains do set the scene for a very subtle yet gripping song. I think their contributions on here are far superior to any of their more recent, wishy washy attempts and so that is welcome.

The following dancer, "Chauvinistic" is capable as a good stepper and is produced by Eddie Levert, Sr and Walter Williams themselves, but again the indie sounding synths detract somewhat. Troy Taylor has produced some nice, if not memorable moments since the 1990s and this is a real exception. Catchy, and infectious, this song will be played frequently at home and in the car. I mention Rahsaan Patterson earlier and I suppose that Rob Fusari and Falonte Moore's "One Good Woman" comes close to the feel of the man's latest "After Hours" set for Dome here in the UK; the vocals ride along a solid mid 1980s groove and works very well indeed.

It is not until track 10 we have involvement from Gerald Levert, aided by Randy Bowland on guitar with the superb late 80s styled ballad, "I Would Rather Cry". The open monologue sets the scene for a CLASSIC O'Jays ballad and no mistake. Comparing this to the superb "A Serious Affair" from their 1997 set would not be far from the truth. I had feared that this would be an all-out kiddies R&B album but thankfully it is not. Weaker than the previous two albums, but perhaps this album has a lot to live up to and on the face of it I can wholly recommend it. Please do not overlook this set.
- Barry Towler


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