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It’s a ‘Throwback,’ But to What?

Boyz II Men Returns... Sort of

By Philip Burrowes

staff writer

Throwback, Volume 1

Boyz II Men

Koch Records

Released August 24

There are two things you should know about Boyz II Men’s new album “Throwback.” First of all, the group has gone from a quartet to a trio, as their longtime bass Michael McCary has retired due to back problems. Secondly, the album is comprised entirely of covers, drawing everywhere from the funk of Dazz Band to the folk of Hall & Oates. If for some reason you’re still compelled to purchase the thing, you’ll likely find it an entertaining but uneven compilation. You might love the originals too much to hear them tampered with, you might feel the group should have done more to distinguish their versions, or you might not like the variety of genres, but something will be off.

Boyz II Men’s prior approach to covering any group from The Beatles to The Platters was quite simple: arrange the song a cappella. Reworking the tune to better suit the strengths of the group’s vocals allowed them to make the song their own. This is not the case of most of the songs on “Throwback.” Much of the original production has been emulated to the point that you may feel like you are listening to the group sing karaoke. Instead of four part harmony, the remaining three members take turns as lead. Dazz Band’s “Let it Whip” and One Way’s “Cutie Pie” especially suffer for this, with their seventies sound revealing MIDI origins beneath airy vocals better suited for ballads.

Another departure from past covers is the turn to songs originally done by soloists. Ron Isley’s “For the Love of You,” Teddy Pendergrass’ “Close the Door,” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay to Together” are among the greatest love songs of their era. Being a group with more than a few highly regarded romantic diddies under its belt, it’s understandable that Boyz II Men would want to tackle such fare. However, the aforementioned singers are undeniably superior to the individual talents of any Boyz II Men member. Listening to the “Throwback” renditions of these songs merely reminds us how fantastic the first versions were.

Only on the final three tracks does the group return to what it does best: harmony. The a cappella version of DeBarge’s “Time Will Reveal” is the most beautiful song on the album and works well, despite the absence of bass. Girl group Klymaxx’s “I Miss You” is infinitely better now that it’s stripped of the original’s telltale eighties raindrops. The album ends with The Stylistics’ already often-covered “You Make Me Feel Brand New” which, while again not as good as the initial interpretation, is at least an understandable homage to a fellow Philly R&B group.

Perhaps a better place for a homage would have been on “Human Nature.” The song -- originally from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” -- was given new life in the early nineties as part of a remix by the female group SWV. SWV itself was a byproduct of the R&B explosion prompted by the immediate success of Boyz II Men. However, instead of featuring SWV, the group turned to Claudette Ortiz of City High. While she does a fine job of imitating Jackson’s falsetto wail, it’s a rather random collaboration. It is not quite as incongruous as MC Lyte’s rap in the middle of “What You Won’t Do For Love,” but still rather odd.

In the “Throwaway” CD-ROM extras, the group says it chose MC Lyte as opposed to a more pop-rapper because she herself is a throwback. One is almost tempted to say there is some corporate synergy between her appearance and forthcoming album, but there is much ado in the liner notes about escaping the grips of major music labels. The truth is probably a bit sadder. After their debut thirteen years ago as teenagers, Boyz II Men are firmly ensconced as the latter. Now, as they approach middle age, they turn to the music they enjoyed as youngsters, a labor of love that is also a classic sign of a mid-life crisis. Even worse, the CDDB recognizes the “Throwback” as “Vol. 1,” indicating the group may not be done publicly reliving its youth.

Considering the speed of nostalgia -- witness VH1’s I Love the 90s -- the irony is that we may not be far from a time when Boyz II Men itself is retro-cool. The meta-irony of that is that they were originally a throwback to groups like (are you ready for some meta-meta-irony??) The Stylistics.