thu 04/06/2020

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Isley Brothers | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Isley Brothers

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Isley Brothers

The American soul great’s late-Sixties to mid-Eighties captured on a hefty, in-depth snapshot

In their finery, The Isley Brothers in 1980Courtesy Jim Houghton/Sony Music Archives

The Isley Brothers The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters [1958-1983]The Isley Brothers: The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters (1958–1983)

Head straight for Track 14, Disc 10’s quadrophonic mix – which plays fine on a normal stereo – of The Isley Brothers’ version of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze”. It’s an instant head-turner as it highlights melody lines in the vocal which were not apparent on the familiar single. The jazzy piano is also more to the fore. Then nip to Track 11, Disc 13’s instrumental version of “Harvest for the World” which, shorn of its vocals, reveals the complex arrangement and intricate, lush production of this seemingly straightforward and propulsive record.

The 23-disc box set The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters is packed with such highlights – both fresh, and reminders that The Isley Brothers were one of popular music’s greatest bands. In total, 21 original albums (one a double) are included. There are 84 bonus tracks, 12 of which are previously unreleased. Disc 19 is Wild in Woodstock: The Isley Brothers Live at Bearsville Sound Studio 1980  a first-time release of the raw tapes of a planned but unissued live album, presented without the overdubbed audience noise meant to be heard at the time.

This is a lot of Isley Brothers, and the brick-like clamshell box containing the discs (in card repros of the original album sleeves with correspondingly tiny, tiny print) and the booklet do not tell the full story. The slightly misleading title suggests the set may span the years 1958 to 1983. It does not. The 1959 Shout! album becomes Disc One, while Disc Two picks up the story with 1969’s It’s Our Thing. From this point on, what’s heard actually is an unbroken sequence of releases (although Disc Six’s 1971 album In the Beginning collects 1964-1965 recordings from the period when Jimi Hendrix was in their line-up).

The Isley Brothers Get Into SomethingThe box draws from The Isley Brothers’ Sony-owned catalogue, so their post-1959, pre-1969 years with Tamla, United Artists and Wand are not collected. Classics like “This Old Heart of Mine” and “Twist and Shout” are not heard. Still, though, this is a monumental collection which sounds fantastic – the mastering is immediate but retains the warmth of the original recordings.

Changing fashion did not strand The Isley Brothers. Their enviable core trait was retaining their trademark vocal cohesion and moving with the times. Like a multi-headed Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield, they could arrange, produce and write what they played and sang on record. And again, like Gaye or Mayfield, they were never out of step with current trends yet did not sacrifice their identity. These qualities helped The Isley Brothers become one of America’s greats.

It’s not necessary though to know what they were up to behind the scenes or in the studio. The music – the end product – is enough. Singles like "That Lady" and “Harvest for the World” ensure their enduring resonance, but the best of their albums reveal the solid foundations underpinning this.

The Isley Brothers Inside YouAmongst the best is the superb 1970 set Get Into Something (pictured above left), which takes funk as its jumping off point and also brings call-and-response gospel, Southern soul-style yearning and an Archie Bell-ish groove to the table. Overall, as ever, the instantly recognisable vocals of O’Kelly, Ronald and Rudolph define proceedings. In 1973, the Isleys expanded to become the six-piece seen in the header picture and released the also-fantastic 3 + 3 album. It opened with “That Lady (Part 1 & 2)”, which featured Ernie Isley’s unforgettable lead guitar lines and an equally memorable melody. The Isley Brothers were as fine on album as they were on single.

Inevitably, the post-disco era was spotty. Grand Slam (1981) is patchy, while 1983’s Between the Sheets has too much lover-man shtick. But Inside You (1981), despite its Village People-like cover image (pictured above right), is a cohesive, infectious set of string-suffused shufflers and dramatic ballads.

Obviously, the hefty The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters is not an introduction to The Isley Brothers. Instead – notwithstanding Disc One’s chronological non-sequitur – it’s a very in-depth aural snapshot for a particular period of this fine group: one for the library. It is also, with a selling price of around £80, a major investment. But for this amount of essential music spread across 23 discs, the price does not seem so steep.

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