Michael McDonald, “Tuesday Heartbreak” from Motown Two (2004): One Track Mind

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If you’re the kind of person who thinks “What a Fool Believes” is superior to “Long Train Runnin'” or prefer One Step Closer over Stampede, well then, consider this installment of One Track Mind a concession to you. Because we’re about to lay some praise on, yes, Michael McDonald.

The cool thing about writing about artists like McDonald is that I don’t need to spend much time setting up the plot; everyone knows Mike’s musical career that took him from Steely Dan backup vocalist, to latter-day Doobie Brothers leader to solo artist to MCI/Verizon pitchman. A lot of you may also already know that his slowly dwindling solo career got a shot in the arm from the adult contemporary crowd when in 2003 when he put out a collection entirely of familiar Motown covers called – what else? – Motown. It sold well enough to encourage McDonald to go to that well once again the following year with – you guessed it – Motown Two.

Now, this is the part where you might expect me to rip him for pulling a Rod Stewart, but I actually applaud the move. Ol’ Rod the Mod, God bless him, was hopelessly out of place playing the part of some modern-era Sinatra. Michael McDonald, on the other hand, is a natural when it comes to soul, because that is his calling card.

Also, he didn’t blindly hand over all the instrumentation to a bunch of anonymous orchestral players and left the vision for these projects to others. He played keyboards, surrounded himself with some crack sessionists and struck a nice balance between making the song sound familiar enough to be reverential to the originals and putting his own stamp on them. If anything, Motown Two is better than the original, because Mike ventures off the path of the most obvious song choices a bit more this time and delights us with a few lesser-known jewels.

One of the more obscure ones, Stevie Wonder’s “Tuesday Heartbreak,” originally appeared in the first of Wonder’s string of masterpieces, 1972’s Talking Book. This was the blockbuster LP from which came “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” but anyone who owns a copy of this record well tell you that there isn’t a weak track to be found there.

“Tuesday Heartbreak” is a jazzy mid-tempo number with straightforward lyrics about longing for a girl who just left him for another man. But the narrator tries to stay hopeful and it’s hard to feel much sorrow from this song when Stevie’s electric keys are so just dad-gummed funky; almost as much as they are on “Superstition”. And if that righteous saxophone wailing in the background throughout the entire track sounds familiar, it’s because that was then-unknown David Sanborn.

McDonald’s new arrangement stays pretty close to the original, even playing the song in the same key and lengthens the song by only 20 seconds. Mike couldn’t match Wonder’s keyboard work and he didn’t bring in Sanborn for sax accents, but he brought some other attributes to the table. First of all, as he’s done with his other Motown covers, he cleaned up the sound, but not so much that the heart and soul are cleansed away in the process. Secondly, the female background vocals are higher up in the mix, where they should have been in the first place. But lastly and most significantly, Mike gives the tune a more passionate vocal rendering, especially in the refrain.

We all know that Stevie Wonder is a great singer, along with his other incredible talents, but the former Doobie Brothers star simply outdoes him here. Really, it’s not even close in that department; Michael McDonald’s voice might be in the best shape of his career.

In the final analysis, it’s just about a toss up out of which version I prefer. Nostalgia probably makes Stevie’s rendition the winner, but McDonald gets a hearty tip of the hat just for coming so close. Whichever camp you fall into with the whole Doobie Brothers debate, if you crave classic soul with a gently updated sound sung by one of the best blue-eyed soul singers around today, Michael McDonald with his Motown records is a fine choice. As his version of “Tuesday Heartbreak” affirms, he gives these first-rate but old songs some new life.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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