Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Isley Brothers Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

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3 + 3 (1973, T-Neck)

A +

It’s not the first album from the Isleys to include younger brothers Ernie and Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper, but 3 + 3 marks the point where the band officially became a sextet, in addition to being the first release from the band to be distributed through Columbia. Ernie’s Hendrix-styled fuzzed-out guitar heroics had graced their discs before, but they’re pushed to the forefront here, even carrying the lead-off cut, the now-timeless – and oh-so-sleek – grooves of “That Lady, Part 1 & 2,” the group’s first Top Ten hit since “It’s Your Thing.” Nothing else here was a major pop hit, but it’s certainly not for lack of quality – this is actually arguably their finest full-length up to this point. Like Brother, Brother, Brother before it, half of the disc is comprised of unlikely covers from the pop/rock world, and they’re all wildly entertaining, be it their radically-rearranged yet fittingly eerie take on folkie Jonathan Edwards’ “Sunshine,” the funkified makeover of the Doobies’ “Listen to the Music,” or Ronald’s sultry rendering of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” Even better is their version of “Summer Breeze,” which they don’t actually re-arrange all that greatly from the original so much as they simply inject a little soul into it, to astounding results that make the song as much of a signature tune for the Isleys as it was for Seals and Crofts. The self-penned numbers that comprise the other half of the album even surpass the originals from Brother, Brother, Brother in terms of greatness; “That Lady” is naturally the best in the bunch, but “If You Were There” (later covered by Wham! on their multi-platinum breakthrough Make It Big) and “What It Comes Down To” should have been Top 40 hits in their own right. No serious R&B collector should be without a copy of this disc.

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Live It Up (1974, T-Neck)

A –

It wasn’t nearly as successful a crossover hit as either of the albums that bookend it, stalling at #14 on the Billboard 200 (ironically, it became their first album to top the R&B charts), and becoming the trio’s first disc since Get Into Something to fail to yield a Top 40 pop hit, but the oft-overlooked Live It Up actually doesn’t fall all that shy of equaling the greatness of either 3 + 3 or The Heat Is On. The disc is something of  a game-changer for the sextet, as it marks the point where the brothers begin to turn away from the R&B makeovers of pop tunes that had given the group new life in the earlier part of the decade. In fact, there’s only one remake at all here, but it’s a great one, Ronald wrapping his soulful voice around the iconic Todd Rundgren ballad “Hello It’s Me,” which is a brilliant choice of cover material for the band. The original material will be much less familiar to more casual fans of the group, but while nothing here is quite as infectious as “That Lady,” it’s all still quite good, especially “Need a Little Taste of Love” (later covered by the Doobie Brothers), “Midnight Sky,” “Brown Eyed Girl” (not to be confused with the Van Morrison song of the same name), and the title cut, and as an album piece, it is rock solid indeed.

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The Heat Is On (1975, T-Neck)

A +

Arguably the best disc the group ever made (with the sole possible exception of 3 + 3), The Heat Is On actually only boasts six tracks (albeit all of them extended two-part jams stretching anywhere from five-and-a-half minutes to just under eight), but as an album piece, it’s every bit as satisfying as 3 + 3 or Live It Up, and it also contains two of the brothers’ most iconic songs: the angry polemics of the groundbreaking “Fight the Power (Part 1 & 2)” and, on the complete opposite side of the musical spectrum, the intoxicatingly sexy grooves of the immortal slow-jam “For the Love of You (Part 1 & 2),” a song which deserves nearly as much credit as Smokey Robinson’s “A Quiet Storm” for giving birth to the R&B/smooth-jazz radio format of the same name. Though those two songs inevitably and naturally upstage everything else here, there’s not a dud track to be found here, and cuts like “Make Me Say It Again Girl (Parts 1 & 2)” and “Hope You Feel Better Love (Part 1 & 2)” also beg to be heard and appreciated. Simply, The Heat Is On is a funk masterpiece.  

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Harvest for the World (1976, T-Neck)

A –

Like Live It Up, this disc failed to produce any major crossover pop hits on the Top 40, and it’s a tad spottier as a whole than Brother, Brother, Brother, which makes the superior album piece of the two, but Harvest for the World is at least as strong as Live It Up and continues the band’s winning artistic streak begun with Givin’ It Back five years earlier. If it still falls well shy of matching The Heat Is On, it has less to do with the absence of a single as strong as “Fight the Power” or “For the Love of You” – on the contrary, the singles here, while lower-charting ones, are quite underrated – than the fact that it noticeably tapers off quite a bit midway through its second side. There are some solid songs to be found here, though, including the title track (later covered by everyone from Vanessa Williams to even ‘80s rock supergroup The Power Station), “At Your Best (You Are Love)” (later a Top Ten smash in the mid-‘90s for the late soulstress Aaliyah), the underrated “Let Me Down Easy,” and the sprightly bounce of “Who Loves You Better?”.   

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Go for Your Guns (1977, T-Neck)

A –

Confusingly packaged in a cover that makes the album initially look a live album, the album art is thankfully the biggest misstep here and the music, while a bit on the brief side (the total running time is under thirty-four minutes) and certainly far from being the equal of Brother, Brother, Brother, 3 + 3, or Live It Up, is at least as memorable as its predecessor, Harvest for the World. Unlike that disc, Go for Your Guns did manage to yield a Top 40 pop hit, if just barely, in the tightly-wound funk-rock of “Livin’ in the Life,” but there are other equally strong sides to be found in the likes of “Footsteps in the Dark (Part 1 & 2)” (later sampled to great effect in Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”), the mystical balladry of “Voyage to Atlantis,” and the very underrated clavinet-driven funk of “The Pride (Part 1 & 2),” which ranks up there with “Fight the Power” and “Harvest for the World” as one of the brothers’ greatest sociopolitical commentaries.

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Showdown (1978, T-Neck)

B

It’s not technically a bad album – on the contrary, it’s still quite good – but Showdown unfortunately marks the end of the brothers’ long run of great, if not must-hear, albums from Givin’ It Back through Go for Your Guns. The disc certainly sounds fabulous while it’s on – certainly, few other bands could work a funk riff quite like the Isleys in their mid-‘70s prime – but, much like Get Into Something, this is a disc that’s groove-driven to a fault, the songs lacking the strong hooks of more song-oriented albums like Brother, Brother, Brother or 3 + 3 and lacking much in the way of anything to say lyrically, either, and as a result, the record feels like less of an album piece in the way that Harvest for the World or Go for Your Guns did and much more like a party platter of jams. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some great moments to be found here – “Coolin’ Me Out (Part 1 & 2)” is quite underrated, for one, “Groove with You” a fine slow jam, and “Take Me to the Next Phase (Part 1 & 2)” one of the group’s most seminal post-The Heat Is On singles – but, overall, it’s the first full-length from the Isleys in quite some time to feel suspiciously more like a product than a major artistic statement. Enjoy the skin-tight grooves and the musicianship on display; just don’t expect to be as satiated and awed by the songwriting itself as you were upon taking in any of the previous six LPs. 

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Winner Takes All (1979, T-Neck)

C +

Easily their least appealing outing since Twisting and Shouting, the Isleys’ last outing of the Seventies succumbs to one too many clichés for its own good, made all the harder to endure by the fact that this is also the group’s first double-disc studio album. There are just fourteen cuts spread out between the four sides of the package, and a full ten of these songs all have the parenthetical “Parts 1 & 2” added to the end of their respective titles. This might not be so irritating if they were at least great songs in the same way that the multi-part “Fight the Power” or “For the Love of You” were, but there’s not even enough top-drawer material here to even fill up a single disc, never mind two of them. But there’s a reason for that: the Isleys aren’t playing to their strengths here, instead seemingly more concerned with playing to the disco market, delivering one too many mindless club cuts, than sticking to the pure funk they do so well. The album’s redeemed by its first side (containing the R&B chart-topper “I Wanna Be With You (Parts 1 & 2)” and the fine title cut) and its ballad-heavy third side (sporting such lovely sides as “You’re the Key to My Heart” and “How Lucky I Am (Parts 1 & 2)”), but those interested in exploring the Isleys’ late-‘70s period are better off sticking to Go for Your Guns.

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Go All the Way (1980, T-Neck)

C +

No better but no worse than Winner Takes All, Go All the Way finds the brothers entering the Eighties with little to say that they haven’t said better on prior discs, and for much of the disc, it just feels as if the group is phoning it in, great though the playing itself remains. Despite a lack of strong material, the disc is salvaged by its back half, which, in spite of including the cringe-inducing “The Belly Dancer,” does include two very solid sides in “Here We Go Again (Parts 1 & 2)” and, even more memorably, the much-sampled “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time for Love) (Parts 1 & 2),” which would reach #39 and be the last Isleys single to reach the Top 40 pop charts until “Contagious” finally ended the drought over twenty years later.

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Grand Slam (1981, T-Neck)

C +

Slightly better than its reputation suggests but still lacking the fire and magic that made the group’s run of discs from Givin’ It Back through Go for Your Guns so excellent, Grand Slam thankfully dispenses with the group’s post-3 + 3 penchant for slapping the parenthetical “Parts 1 & 2” onto every other song (none of the song titles here include those words, actually), but the band has yet to fully shed its heavy disco influences of the last few years, making the disc a slightly cringe-inducing listen for that reason. But the playing remains solid (with a rhythm section as good as Ernie, Marvin, and Chris, you simply can’t go wrong), and there is the occasional half-decent song, particularly the gentle acoustic grooves of “I Once Had Your Love (and I Can’t Let Go),” one of the group’s most underrated ballads, and the funk jam “Hurry Up and Wait,” which boasts some great bass work from Marvin. Still, the lack of any seminal Isley singles here means that only the most diehard of fans are likely to know anything from this disc before purchasing it, making it one of the group’s least essential albums, even if it’s ever-so-slightly underrated.

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Inside You (1981, T-Neck)

C +

To the credit of the Isleys, even during their dry run following Go for Your Guns, they never actually made a legitimately terrible album – merely a string of mediocre ones, and Inside You, much like the previous three discs, is similarly half-decent, even if it’s ultimately too spotty to stand up anywhere close to the band’s best ‘70s work. Though the ridiculous cover art makes the record look nearly akin to a Village People album, the music itself is way hipper than the packaging would itself, and though the disc definitely loses steam rough halfway through, the first side has its fairly good moments, namely the title cut (a seamless blend of heavy-funk motifs and lush, strings-laden disco that works surprisingly well) and the masterful slow jam “Don’t Hold Back Your Love,” a song which rivals pretty much any Marvin Gaye song you can think of in terms of sheer sexiness yet is still subtle enough to feel more tasteful and romantic than off-putting. Also of note is “First Love,” a song penned by the then-unknown David Townsend, later to serve as a member of the highly-successful late ‘80s/early ‘90s R&B trio Surface. 

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The Real Deal (1982, T-Neck)

C –

The Isleys were fraught with internal tension during much of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s owing in part to arguments over music direction, and never did that manifest itself more clearly than it does on this noticeably schizophrenic disc. The group’s foregone its funk sound of old in favor of an electro-funk vibe that makes them occasionally sound more like Roger Troutman and Zapp, while even the group’s trademark silky ballads have more of a sharp edge this time around, “All in My Lover’s Eyes” actually sounding more menacing than romantic with its low-pitched synth gurgles and cutting guitar solos. “Under the Influence” takes the group even further left-field into pure blues-rock territory, with only Marvin’s funk-bass slaps keeping the song identifiable as an Isleys side. Although nothing here is technically bad (actually, the songs are generally more respectable than most of the disco-influenced songs from Winner Takes All), the individual moments never quite gel together into a coherent whole, and you can’t help but feel that the group is very much going through something of an identity crisis at this point. The disc isn’t completely without merit, but it’s also the least essential disc they’ve made since the early ‘60s.