Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Manhattan Transfer Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Assuming you even recognize the name of this week’s featured artist in Discog Fever, you might be wondering why we’d do a piece on them. First of all, we’ve never really tried covering an artist before in this column who you might be able to categorize as jazz, and we like to cover a wide range of music on this website, from pop/rock, R&B, and rap to club/dance music, folk, and country. But more importantly, they’re great – really great. So much so that it was virtually impossible for me to single out just one or two of their albums to write about in an Albums from the Lost and Found column. The Manhattan Transfer are one of the more unique and innovative vocal groups of the last several decades, the quartet flitting from genre to genre with even more frequency than Joe Jackson, doing everything from jazz, R&B, and straightforward adult-contemporary pop to doo-wop, swing, and even world music, yet having a trademark four-part-harmony sound that keeps even their most left-field stylistic excursions still very much identifiable as an album from the group. Though they peaked commercially in the early Eighties and haven’t scored a major crossover hit since 1983’s “Spice of Life,” sadly rendering them mostly little-known among younger music listeners, they continue to release fabulous discs and they remain highly-respected in the music industry, attracting such high-profile legends on their albums as Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr, Smokey Robinson, and even the late, great Laura Nyro. They’ve garnered twenty Grammy nominations over the years, winning ten of those trophies, and they’ve also been inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Despite the loss of co-founder Tim Hauser in 2014, the group has soldiered on and remains a very busy touring outfit. Just this past October, they popped up as a special guest on the latest Christmas album from the much-loved a cappella group Pentatonix, longtime admirers of the Transfer. So, whatever your music tastes may be, there’s likely something in the group’s vast and impressive catalog that might appeal to you – even if jazz or doo-wop doesn’t much interest you, the band has made quite a few pop albums that frequently incorporate covers by artists ranging from the Beach Boys and the Supremes to Todd Rundgren, Tom Waits and Rufus Wainwright! So let’s dive in, shall we?     

Jukin’ (1971, Capitol)

C –

Be forewarned: this debut disc from the group is quite literally the work of almost an entirely different group. Tim Hauser is the only band member here who would go on to appear on any of the albums that would follow, and even he plays a relatively minor role here, the disc serving as more of a showcase for singer/songwriter Gene Pistilli, who had a hand in writing five of the ten tracks and takes most of the lead vocals. Nothing on this disc would be kept in the band’s later stage repertoire with the exception of “Java Jive.” There’s also little on this disc that qualifies as jazz except for possibly “You’re a Viper.” Instead, the band tries on a variety of styles from the country-rock of “Rosianna,” the pure country of “Fair and Tender Ladies,” and the soft-rock of “One More Time around Rosie” to the doo-wop of “Guided Missiles,” the vaudeville of “Sunny Disposish,” and the Bobby Sherman-like pop of “Chicken Bone Bone.” It’s awfully schizophrenic, and the band doesn’t seem to have any clear idea what they are. Hauser would wisely bring a greater focus to the group upon re-forming it, dispensing with the experiments in country and rock and placing a greater emphasis on doo-wop, pop, and jazz without any of the irony that crops up on this disc, and the change gave the group a much more distinct and unique identity. Naturally, this is an unbelievably strange disc to listen to if you’re already familiar with the group’s later work, but it’s not dreadful – just different. Very different.

The Manhattan Transfer (1975, Atlantic)

B +    

Newly re-formed by Tim Hauser, the group re-emerges on Atlantic Records with a virtually brand-new lineup (only Hauser remains from Jukin’, the quartet now being rounded out by Alan Paul, Janis Siegel, and Laurel Masse). Even though this is the album that put the group on the map (and even landed them their own short-lived variety show), it admittedly hasn’t aged very well and almost seems like a novelty disc with its overreliance on retro-flavored cuts. It’s also a bit schizophrenic-sounding, alternating wildly between styles, from jazz (“Candy,” “That Cat Is High,” “You Can Depend on Me”) and gospel to doo-wop and even disco (“Clap Your Hands.”) There’s even an Allen Toussaint tune here, “Occapella.” But there’s an undeniable charm and obvious potential to the newly-relaunched band, and there are some trademark tunes and winning cuts here, namely the gospel-flavored Top 40 hit “Operator,” the album-opening jazz crawl of “Tuxedo Junction,” the lazy groove of “Java Jive,” and the doo-wop excursions “Gloria” and “Heart’s Desire.” The band probably wouldn’t have lasted very long had they continued down this same path on a permanent basis, so it was inevitable that their sound would change over time, but the roots of the band’s fusion of jazz and pop and its well-crafted blend of harmonies is already in place, so this is still audibly the work of the band that would go on to greater commercial success – and plenty of Grammy wins – in the ‘80s.

Coming Out (1976, Atlantic)

B +  

Largely downplaying the nostalgic nature of their self-titled effort, the quartet makes a conscious effort here to sound a bit more contemporary. (Heck, the group almost even rocks on “S.O.S.”) Naturally, some fans howled, particularly jazz critics, and the album failed to yield a follow-up Top 40 hit to “Operator,” but the disc arguably has aged better than the previous album, and even if it’s far more pop than jazz (though “Scotch and Soda” is mildly jazzy), it’s mostly well-done. The Edith Piaf-like cover of Art & Dotty Todd’s “Chanson d’Amour” was a major international hit for the band, but it doesn’t fit in especially well here at all and ends up feeling more like a novelty. Highlights include delightful covers of Roy Hamilton’s “Don’t Let Go,” the very obscure Motown song “Helpless” (originally done by Kim Weston), and, most unexpectedly of all, Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference.” Equally fun are the numbers “The Speak Up Mambo” and the funky “Zindy Lou,” the latter of which features Dr. John and even Ringo Starr in its rhythm section! If your tastes skirt closer to jazz than pop or rock, you’ll likely want to avoid this one, but if you don’t mind the group’s more pop-flavored excursions, this is actually an awfully underrated disc and a very fun listen. 

Pastiche (1978, Atlantic)

B

The band’s third album is neatly divided into two distinct sides, the first jazz-oriented and the second a pop affair. Unexpectedly, the former is actually the weaker of the two, containing too many experiments that don’t work (namely the heavily country-tinged arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and the all-French “Je Voulais”), but its best cuts – the pure jazz of “Four Brothers” (one of the very best jazz sides in the group’s catalog) and Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tune” – are knockouts. The disc’s pop side ends with a very weak cover of the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” but is otherwise quite consistent, containing four well-chosen cuts in the languid soft-rock of David Batteau’s “Walk in Love,” the lite-disco of the Rupert Holmes-penned “Who, What, When, Where, Why,” the Addrisi Brothers’ “Pieces of Dreams,” and a surprisingly great cover of the Barry Goldberg/Gerry Goffin-penned “It’s Not the Spotlight” (made most famous by Rod Stewart on Atlantic Crossing) with Booker T. & the MG’s backing the vocal quartet. It’s just a tad spottier than Coming Out, but it’s still another largely winning effort from a group that was about to get even better.

Extensions (1979, Atlantic)

A +

Laurel Masse has left the group at this point and has been replaced with Cheryl Bentyne, and it’s this lineup of the group that would become both its longest-lasting and most famous. The newly-reconfigured quartet also dials down a bit on the retro stylings of the previous discs in favor of a more contemporary sound that helps to make the transition between the jazzier cuts and the more pop-flavored cuts less jarring, making for a much more unified product. Extensions is flat-out fabulous; not everything works (“Wacky Dust” falls flat, and depending on your tastes, the strange, futuristic alternative jazz of “Coo Coo U” will either be wildly fascinating or unlistenable), but the group is performing with greater confidence than ever, and Alan Paul in particular is really beginning to assert himself creatively. The doo-wop cover “Trickle Trickle” (originally popularized by the Videos) is great fun, as is the light disco of the Paul-penned Top 40 hit “Twilight Tone” (which is cleverly preceded by the theme from The Twilight Zone), the vocal rendition of the jazz classic “Birdland” (popularized by Weather Report), and the pure adult-contemporary pop of the bouncy “Nothin’ You Can Do About It” (penned by the great team of David Foster, Jay Graydon, and Steve Kipner), which Paul appealingly sings with some real sass in his delivery. The disc also closes with a pair of knockouts: the playfully syncopated jazz-pop of “Shaker Song” and an ingenious acapella cover of Tom Waits’ “Foreign Affair.” Start your Manhattan Transfer collection with this disc.

Mecca for Moderns (1981, Atlantic)

A  

The group wisely retains Extensions producer Jay Graydon for this disc, which, like Pastiche, is roughly divided into a pop side and a jazz side. The album would make even bigger stars out of the vocal quartet, even giving them their first (and, sadly, only) Top Ten hit in a cover of the Ad Libs’ doo-wop classic “Boy from New York City,” but for some reason, the disc doesn’t seem quite as charming or as fresh as Extensions, partly because there’s a little less cohesion in the production (the jazzier cuts on Extensions blended much more effectively alongside the pop songs than the ones here do) and partly because the disc lacks a “Nothin’ You Can Do About It” to help compensate for the group’s more nostalgia-or-novelty-flavored moments. But there are still some fun cuts here; aside from boasting the group’s biggest hit, the disc also has two fine pop tunes in the playful, mildly theatrical Paul/Foster/Graydon co-write “Spies in the Night” and the ballad “Smile Again,” which recalls Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone.” (Not surprisingly, that song’s co-writer, Bill Champlain, co-wrote the cut.) On the jazzier side of things, there are a few winners in “Until I Met You (Corner Pocket),” Charlie Parker’s “(The Word of) Confirmation,” and, best of all, a devastatingly pretty rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

Bodies and Souls (1983, Atlantic)

A –    

This disc – produced by Richard Rudolph (future SNL star Maya Rudolph’s dad) – got the worst reviews from jazz critics the foursome had garnered in some time, but that really had less to do with the quality of the album than that the album simply downplays the group’s jazz side. Pop and even R&B fans, on the other hand, should find a lot to like here. The disc gave the group its final Top 40 hit in “Spice of Life,” penned by Michael Jackson favorite Rod Temperton (formerly of the band Heatwave) and not that dissimilar from – and even superior to – Temperton’s Thriller composition “Baby Be Mine.” Naturally, the single made jazz purists cringe, but as a slice of adult-contemporary pop, it’s pretty first-rate; Janis Siegel delivers one of her best-ever vocal performances on the cut, and Stevie Wonder even shows up to provide a delightful harmonica solo. The legendary Frankie Valli pops up in cameo form on “American Pop,” and Temperton contributes a second winner in the ballad “Mystery,” which would later get covered by Anita Baker on Rapture. The second side isn’t quite as hook-filled (though “Why Not! (Manhattan Carnival)” is fairly catchy), but it’s where you’ll find the jazzier cuts like Fletcher Henderson’s “Down South Camp Meetin’.” The disc also closes in delightful fashion with the subdued ballads “Goodbye Love” and “The Night That Monk Returned to Heaven.” It may not be as famous – or as groundbreaking – as Extensions, but this tends to be a wildly underrated album.