In its 1960s prime Motown Records rightfully called its hits “the sound of young America.” Nowadays those songs are the sound of aging British rockers’ nostalgia. Rod Stewart (last year, with the soulless “Soulbook”) and now Phil Collins have recorded album-length soul tributes, recreating old arrangements. The songs remain surefire, as perfectly wrought and indelible as anything in pop history. But the singer makes a crucial difference, and not always for the better.
Mr. Collins’s “Going Back” (Atlantic), due on Sept. 28, was made with members of Motown’s revered studio band, the Funk Brothers, backing him up. He gave a preview of it at the Roseland Ballroom on Wednesday evening, starting a three-night stand there. “This is some of the music that I grew up with in London when I was a little boy,” Mr. Collins, 59, said onstage. “All right, when I was a teenager.”
The setup harked back to Motown suavity, with Mr. Collins in a black suit. There were 18 musicians and singers, including Bob Babbitt on bass and Eddie Willis on guitar from the 1960s Funk Brothers. The men wore purple jackets, and the women were in purple sequined dresses.
Old hooks were instantly recognizable as the band rolled out hits (along with a few non-Motown songs from the Impressions and the Ronettes). Chester Thompson on drums, Mr. Collins’s longtime sideman, deployed Motown’s commanding backbeat and annunciatory snare rolls. A horn section, vibraphone and piccolo (for Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” ) were on hand, though the string-section parts were synthetic. Oddly, the band left out a standard Motown element: a second trap-drum kit socking that big beat in unison. But the group took care to get the gospel-tambourine brightness and chank-a-chank guitars just right.
Then there was Mr. Collins. His affection for the songs is obviously genuine. As a curator, he sometimes grouped works by topic, like abandonment: the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack” and the Impressions’ “You’ve Been Cheatin’.”
But Mr. Collins was not an eager Detroit teenager or a church-raised gospel shouter or a chitlin’-circuit trouper. He’s a British rocker who’s more a soul fan than a soul singer. His voice has a narrower emotional range than the Motown originals, with a smoky, melancholy burr that infuses his own songs with gravity. It could bring out some of the pain tucked between the familiar choruses: the desperation of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” the masochism of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar.”
But his voice lacks the tone of joyful release that made Motown so vital, a sonic embodiment of mid-1960s hopes. Mr. Collins’s version of “Heat Wave” sounded like a mild thaw, while “Going to a Go-Go” might have been just another errand. Meanwhile the desperate questions a son asks his mother in “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” could have been a solicitor taking a deposition.
Mr. Collins put his own stamp on the album’s title track, a 1966 Gerry Goffin-Carole King song that was recorded by Dusty Springfield, and then the Byrds, as “Goin’ Back.” A somber beat and floating keyboard chords linked it to Mr. Collins’s catalog, and the lyrics weren’t teenage: “I’m returning to the days when I was young enough to know the truth.” It was a hint of a different album, one that didn’t measure him directly against Motown’s peak.
© NYTimes, by Jon Pareles