Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The O'Jays

  • Back Stabbers [Philadelphia International, 1972] B+
  • Ship Ahoy [Philadelphia International, 1973] B
  • Survival [Philadelphia International, 1975] C+
  • Family Reunion [Philadelphia International, 1975] C
  • Message in the Music [Philadelphia International, 1976] B-
  • Collectors' Items [Philadelphia International, 1977] C+
  • So Full of Love [Philadelphia International, 1978] C+
  • Love Train: The Best of the O'Jays [Epic Associated/Legacy, 1995] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Back Stabbers [Philadelphia International, 1972]
The title cut is single of the year, so I'm not surprised that it's unequaled here, but I wish something came close. Most will opt for "Love Train," a propulsive flagwaver attached to UNESCO lyrics about people all over the world joining hands, presumably so they can't stab each other in the you-know-where. Me, I prefer the follow-up, "992 Arguments," but "I'm a Man" or "Baby Love" it's not--more like "It's the Same Old Song." B+

Ship Ahoy [Philadelphia International, 1973]
Every time side two gets rolling my ass tells my brain to go away--"For the Love of Money" is that great, although it's all (gradually) downhill from there. But when I put on side one my brain kicks back in, and my brain is right--not a song I ever want to hear again. B

Survival [Philadelphia International, 1975]
Except for the astonishing "Rich Get Richer," based on a text by Ferdinand Lundberg, this is the drabbest studio album this group has made since joining Gamble-Huff. Unfortunately, "Rich Get Richer" is not the single. C+

Family Reunion [Philadelphia International, 1975]
In which Jesse Jackson (or is it Reverend Ike) goes disco, proving that the words do too matter. The self-serving, pseudopolitical pap Kenny Gamble sets his boys to declaiming here underlines the way the overripeness of this vocal and production style can go mushy, which it does. Even the working-class party anthem "Livin' for the Weekend" is ruined by the rest of the side--some play-her-like-a-violin soft-core, and the unspeakable (would it were unsingable) "I Love Music." Moral: the rich and the superrich shit--the nouveau riche can fuck you over too. C

Message in the Music [Philadelphia International, 1976]
The message in the message is inoffensive enough to let the message in the music come through; my favorite lines (not that I don't have unfavorites): "Heaven is just a condition/Hell is a condition too." But the music never peaks; the songs are too medium, if you know what I mean, their pleasures bound up in performance subtleties that ought to be hooked, at least once, onto something obvious. B-

Collectors' Items [Philadelphia International, 1977]
Steadfast stylistically since "Back Stabbers" in 1972, Kenny Gamble's three-man mouthpiece ought to make an ideal best-of--if you dig Kenny Gamble. I regard him as a gifted pop demagogue--black capitalist masquerading as liberator. The oppressively patriarchal "Family Reunion" is the lead cut, setting the tone of a collection three of whose four sides are rendered unlistenable by Gamble's sermonizing and/or sentimentality. What's more, the O'Jays deserve him. Eddie Levert is the master of the soulful harangue, parading the trappings of emotional commitment with literally incredible showbiz chutzpah. When I happen to agree with what they're saying, or when an inoffensive lyric is attached to one of Leon Huff's greatest hooks, I like them fine. But I obviously can't expect Kenny to put together a compilation for me. Maybe I'll make a tape. C+

So Full of Love [Philadelphia International, 1978]
If the title's true--I've never considered Eddie Levert one of the great romantics--it's sure not all they're full of. Exception: Bunny Sigler's "Strokety Stroke." C+

Love Train: The Best of the O'Jays [Epic Associated/Legacy, 1995]
The O'Jays were a moderately gifted r&b trio fortunate enough to hook up with Philadelphia International's Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for an extended if belated '70s run. Smarmy lead Eddie Levert served as mouthpiece for smarmy black capitalist Gamble on such Big Statements (and Small Sellers) as "Family Reunion," which were resuscitated on subsequent compilations. Two decades later, however, this collection leaves the bullshit to Farrakhan and showcases pianist-hookmeister Huff, who along with arrangers Thom Bell and Bobby Martin outfitted the O'Jays in a shifting soul-funk-pop-disco amalgam that was most convincing when you didn't have time to think about it: "Back Stabbers," "992 Arguments," the indelibly bass-hooked "For the Love of Money." "Rich Get Richer" shouldn't have been bypassed. This is everything else. A-