by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Between the Sheets (1983, T-Neck)
A slight bounce-back in quality from the confused The Real Deal, Between the Sheets would be both the band’s last album issued through their own T-Neck imprint and the last Isleys disc to feature the expanded six-member lineup, Ernie, Marvin, and Chris leaving shortly after to form the splinter group Isley-Jasper-Isley. There’s far too much filler here (particularly on the second side) to make the disc the return to form it could have been with a stronger set of material, but there are two minor Isley classics to be found here that go a long way towards redeeming the disc: “Choosey Lover” (a slight rip-off of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Devotion,” yes, but a good one) and the seductive quiet-storm-styled title track, which was sampled endlessly throughout the ‘90s by everyone from The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z to Aaliyah and Keith Murray.
Masterpiece (1985, Warner Bros.)
Arguably the best Isleys album since Go For Your Guns, this disc actually bombed on the charts, not only stalling all the way back at #140 on the Top 200 but even failing to make any big impression on the R&B surveys, neither producing any Top Ten singles nor reaching the Top Ten on the R&B Albums chart! Nonetheless, the exit of the younger half of the former sextet, reducing the group to the original trio of Ronald, Rudolph, and O’Kelly, has ironically reinvigorated the group. Fittingly, the first post-sextet album from the group is much like an ‘80s version of Brother, Brother, Brother, with R&B makeovers of pop songs like Phil Collins’ “If Leaving Me Is Easy” or country great Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl” added to the brew of the self-penned “May I?” and outside material penned by everyone from future Madonna producer/co-writer Patrick Leonard (who offers up the great “Colder Are My Nights”) and Skip Scarborough (best known for co-writing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” L.T.D.’s “Love Ballad,” Anita Baker’s “Giving You the Best That I Got” and Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day”) to even Stevie Wonder, who contributes “Stay Gold.” The material’s not quite as strong as the best tunes from Brother, Brother, Brother (there is no classic here comparable to, say, “Work to Do”), but the album is simply the most refreshing and tasteful album they’ve made in well over five years, finding the elder three Isleys getting back to what they do best. Of all their ‘80s releases, this is the most consistently appealing disc in the bunch.
Smooth Sailin’ (1987, Warner Bros.)
Sadly, just as the Isleys were on the verge of a major artistic comeback after the tasteful Masterpiece put the band’s winning formula of old back in place, O’Kelly passed away suddenly of a heart attack, reducing the group to a duo of Ronald and Rudolph. The group would go on, but, likely discouraged by the poor commercial showing of Masterpiece, the remaining brothers opt to change course again, dispensing with both the covers and the use of multiple outside writers, instead employing a single outside writer/co-producer for virtually the entirety of the disc – in this case, Angela Winbush of the R&B duo Rene and Angela. Though the union did eventually lead to Ronald and Angela tying the knot, it’s a slightly odd pairing on a musical level; the Isleys were always at their best when they tried to play equally to both the pop and R&B audience, and Rene and Angela had little crossover success to speak of, never managing to score a Top 40 pop hit. Furthermore, the songs generally noticeably sound less like songs specifically written for the Isleys than they do Angela Winbush compositions that just so happen to have Ronald singing on them, so the disc never quite feels as if it fits in all that seamlessly with most of the albums that preceded it. This isn’t to say the album is without its moments – “Come My Way” and “Smooth Sailin’ Tonight” among them – but it doesn’t play to their strengths nearly as well as Masterpiece did, and it feels just a bit too generic for that reason.
Spend the Night (1989, Warner Bros.)
At first glance, it may appear as if this is a Ronald Isley solo album in everything but name, but Rudolph does actually sing alongside Ronald on the record – he simply left the band after the record was finished and before the photo that appears on the album cover was taken. This disc has an even heavier Angela Winbush influence than the previous record – she solely penned all seven songs (and one reprise) featured here, in addition to co-producing the album and providing most of the keyboard work and drum programs. The disc is no better but no worse than Smooth Sailin’ and is much in the same – albeit a bit generic – vein (well, if you can overlook the incongruous guest rap from Kool Moe Dee on “Come Together,” that is), but like that album, it has a couple half-decent songs to redeem it (especially “Spend the Night (Ce Soir)” and “One of a Kind.”) Luckily for Ronald, he’d re-surface on pop and adult-contemporary stations in a major way the following year as Rod Stewart’s duet partner on a cover of the Isleys’ classic “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” thereby boosting the band’s profile and paving the way for yet another comeback.
Tracks of Life (1992, Warner Bros.)
The first Isleys album of the ‘90s is a step back in the right direction. For one, Ronald is more invested creatively in the disc this time around than last – Angela Winbush is still the dominant writer, writing or co-writing all but two tracks here, but Ronald has a hand in writing six of the fourteen songs. More importantly, this disc finds younger brothers Ernie and Marvin re-joining the band for the first time since Between the Sheets, so the disc simply just feels like an Isley Brothers album in a way that the first two post-Masterpiece albums did not. Mind you, this isn’t exactly a return to the sound of 3 + 3 or The Heat Is On; the disc is very much steeped in early-‘90s urban-R&B production, and Ernie’s guitar is downplayed considerably compared to his Hendrixian heroics on the band’s mid-‘70s platters, so don’t expect any blissfully-fuzzed-out solos comparable to that of “That Lady.” But having Ernie and Marvin back does put a bit more edge back into the more funk-tinged cuts, even if the slow jams like “Lost in Your Love” and “Sensitive Lover” tend to steal the show. It’s still a far cry from the greatness of any of their ‘70s discs from Givin’ It Back through Go for Your Guns, but it’s still an improvement on the last two albums and is at least as decent as such early ‘80s outings with Ernie and Marvin as Inside You or Between the Sheets.
Mission to Please (1996, Island/T-Neck)
Easily the band’s finest hour since Masterpiece, this disc finds Ronald, Ernie, and Marvin fitting in much more comfortably into the contemporary urban-R&B climate than they did on Tracks of Life – and with a better set of material, to boot. In addition to the usual Isley-Winbush collaborations (Angela even pops up as Ronald’s duet partner on the standout cut “Floatin’ on Your Love”), the brothers have also employed some outside writing/production help in the form of Keith Sweat (on “Slow Is the Way”) and R. Kelly [who Ronald and Ernie had already worked with as featured guests on his Top Five smash “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” the wildly popular video of which introduced the character of Mr. Biggs, who would become Ronald’s part-time musical alter ego], the latter of whom co-writes several excellent cuts here, including “Mission to Please You,” “Can I Have a Kiss (For Old Times’ Sake)?” and “Let’s Lay Together.” The brothers also dip into their old bag of tricks and toss in another R&B-flavored pop cover – in this case, Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years,” which is a perfect fit for the band.
Eternal (2001, DreamWorks)
Ever-so-slightly less consistent than Mission to Please, Eternal is still a very fine late-career effort by the band, who are sadly now reduced to a duo once more, following the passing of Marvin from diabetes. R. Kelly has a much smaller role this time out, writing and producing only “Contagious,” although the song (featuring Chante Moore on backing vocals) is not only the strongest cut here but would even return the Isley Brothers name to the Top 40 for the first time since 1980’s “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time for Love).” But Kelly’s absence elsewhere is largely made up for with the presence of Raphael Saadiq (who lends his writing and production talents to three cuts, highlighted by the great “Move Your Body” and “You Didn’t See Me”) and R&B titans Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who co-write and produce the excellent title cut, along with two other tracks). Like the last record, there’s also another well-done pop-via-R&B cover in the form of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.” The lone thing that prevents Eternal from quite equaling Mission to Please is that it’s simply just a couple tracks too needlessly long and could have lost a bit of its filler without running the risk of making the album too brief.
Body Kiss (2003, DreamWorks)
Quite possibly the best thing they’ve done since Go for Your Guns (it’s at least as good as Mission to Please, anyway), Body Kiss finds The Isleys not only taking savvy advantage of Ronald’s much-loved alter ego Mr. Biggs, but bringing back R. Kelly to write and produce all but one track. Even though neither surviving Isley brother has co-written anything here, Kelly does a nice job of tailoring these songs – even if the occasional overt sexuality of the lyrics (we should probably point out here that the oft-controversial Lil’ Kim pops up in a cameo here, as does Snopp Dogg) befits Kelly’s own style more than it does the Isleys, who were never nearly as explicit in their heyday as, say, Marvin Gaye – towards the band, coming up with a set of songs (highlighted by the funky “Prize Possession” and the dramatic “What Would You Do?”) that both give Ronald a chance to show off his chops as a vocalist and interpreter and give Ernie just enough room to subtly add his own ambience to the tracks without running too wild. While some purist fans of the group might cringe – and understandably so – at the two guest-rapper cameos, the disc is an otherwise fairly impressive and mostly tasteful blend of the band’s vintage sound and R. Kelly’s more contemporary style, and because of Kelly’s presence throughout, the disc has a coherent feel to it that makes it feel like more of an album piece than anything the band has done since the ‘70s. Fittingly, the disc would become the first Isleys album to reach Number One on the Top 200 since The Heat Is On.
Baby Makin’ Music (2006, Def Soul)
The follow-up to Body Kiss can’t help but feel like much more of a hodgepodge than that disc, precisely because it is: for an eleven-song album, there’s a lot of producers used here. Sadly, R. Kelly returns for only one track (the fun “Blast Off”), while the remainder of the disc is divided in roughly equal parts amongst Jermaine Dupri, Manuel Seal, Gordon Chambers, and Tim & Bob. It starts off strong (“You’re My Star” and the better-than-you-would-guess-from-its-title “Just Came Here to Chill” are both appealing, as is the aforementioned “Blast Off”) and ends strong (“You Help Me Write This Song” is especially lovely), but there’s a lot of filler in the middle (and, yes, “Forever Mackin’” is as awkward as you might expect) and there’s just not much – save, of course, for Ronald’s always-delightful singing and Ernie’s sporadic guitar licks, which are still way too buried to stand up to his best moments on the Isley’s great run of ‘70s albums – to really link all these tracks together into a completely logical whole. It still has enough appeal to outrank any of the Warner Brothers-era albums (and it’s remarkable that the band still has an album this half-decent in them after nearly fifty years in the business!), but of the four Isleys albums since leaving that label, this is arguably the least essential.
Power of Peace (2017, Sony Legacy)
A full-length collaboration between the band and the legendary Isley Brothers, this disc isn’t nearly as good as you might hope for it to be, if only because it too often feels like a studio jam. The album is jam-packed with cover tunes from the likes of the Chambers Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Impressions, Billie Holiday, Willie Dixon, Eddie Kendricks, Swamp Dogg, Burt Bacharach, and others. What the album doesn’t have much of is the very thing you might hope for the most from a meeting between these two bands: new original material. In fact, there are no Isley/Santana co-writes here at all – just one new original from Cindy Blackmon Santana. Naturally, it’s still quite pleasant and highly amusing to hear the two groups playing together, but you walk away feeling as if you’ve merely listened to a better-than-average cover band comprised of all-stars (not unlike, say, Ringo Starr and the All-Starr Band) and you’re left with no better idea than you came in with as to what it might have sounded like for the most legendary of all Latin-rock bands to sit down with one of the most iconic and influential of R&B groups and actually creatively meld minds to see what they could come up with together from scratch instead of merely playing a bunch of mutually-shared favorite songs. Neither great nor bad, this disc is fairly appealing but can’t help but feel like a completely wasted opportunity to do something more artistic and innovative.
Because the Isleys switched labels so many times, trying to license all their hits for a single compilation is a bit of a nightmare for a compilation supervisor. So it’s a bit amazing that Sony Legacy managed to put together a near-perfect package in 2004’s double-disc The Essential Isley Brothers, which naturally includes not only nearly every major single from the group’s T-Neck years (although the Top 40 hit “Livin’ in the Life” is strangely missing, though it would be included on the bonus disc added to the record upon its excellent 3.0 three-disc reissue six years later) but also manages to include the original versions of “Shout!,” “Twist and Shout,” and “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” and even unexpectedly and generously tosses in R. Kelly’s “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” Isley-Jasper-Isley’s “Caravan of Love” and the early obscurity “Move Over and Let Me Dance,” featuring Jimi Hendrix on guitar. [Of their Top 40 hits, only the 2001 comeback hit “Contagious” is missing.] It’s not sequenced chronologically, unfortunately, and some more diehard fans might quibble about the omissions of “Respectable” or such fine album cuts as “Hello It’s Me,” “If You Were There,” or “At Your Best (You Are Love),” but when you consider the sheer number of first-rate R&B sides here and the amazing job Sony did clearing all the tracks for inclusion (bear in mind the Isleys were actually only under the Columbia umbrella from 1973 to 1983), it seems a bit silly to nitpick when there’s so much already here to appreciate. If you only want to spring for a single-disc package, Epic’s 2000 package The Ultimate Isley Brothers is fairly comprehensive for an anthology of its brevity and isn’t a bad substitute, even if it oddly opts for lesser hits and album cuts like “Groove with You” and “Spill the Wine” over Top 40 singles like “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” “I Turned You On” and “Pop That Thang,” so it’s not nearly as satisfying as Essential is.
It arrived too early in their career to include such massive later hits as “That Lady,” “Fight the Power,” or “For the Love of You,” but as far as Isley live discs go, you simply can’t top 1973’s The Isleys Live, recorded at the famous New York City club The Bitter End right at the end of the band’s career-rejuvenating tenure with the Buddah label and split right down the middle between the group’s R&B pop-song makeovers that dotted such fabulous studio discs as Givin’ It Up and Brother, Brother, Brother and such fabulous self-penned tunes as “It’s Your Thing,” “Lay Away,” “Pop That Thang,” and “Work to Do.” This is an instance where you definitely don’t want the vinyl, because the CD reissue from Rhino generously tacks on the brothers’ live performances from the 1969 various-artists compilation Live at Yankee Stadium as bonus tracks, rendering the purchase of that disc unnecessary for most Isley Brothers collectors.