Former Doobie Brother and Steely Dan sideman Michael McDonald is back with his first album of original material in 17 years. We think it’s been worth the wait.
Michael McDonald is cool once again. For many longtime observers of his forty-year career, this situation was an unlikely one. Yet, fortunately for McDonald, he is once again relevant musically. Indeed, recent years have been kind to McDonald, and he is enjoying a late career resurgence, buoyed by his being “discovered” by younger acts such as Thundercat (McDonald appeared on his album earlier this year) and Solange Knowles. As such, he’s enjoying new found fame among a younger crowd (although, we assume, many younger listeners first heard of McDonald singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ with Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon), as well as solidifying his position as one of the most unique singers of his generation.
It hasn’t always been this way though. With his distinct white hair and matching beard, for many years McDonald was the subject of widespread mockery in the music industry for producing music what critics derided as ‘Yacht Rock’: not quite soul, not quite rock, but somewhere in the middle. As will all effective mockery, there is often an element of truth in it. Indeed, McDonald has been responsible for some middle-of-the road musical averageness, and is an unapologetic about the smoothness of his soul records.
Yet, much of the criticism levied at him ignores the fact that he has also produced some brilliant records, both and a solo artist and with The Doobie Brothers. From ‘What a Fool Believes’ to ‘Sweet Freedom’, his incredible duet with Patti LaBelle, and the absolute eighties banger ‘Yah Mo Be There‘ with James Ingram, McDonald has proven himself to be one of the greats.
There is no denying that Michael McDonald is a very talented individual, and glimpses of his brilliance shine through on his latest album Wide Open. This new album is his first of original material in nearly two decades. McDonald has recorded three albums of covers (Motown, Motown II, Soul Speak) and one Christmas album since he released Blue Obsession in 2000, but has been collecting tracks for a potential new album of originals since then. Now, McDonald has finally got into a studio and polished off the best of these tracks, to produce the 70-minute epic, Wide Open.
The album open’s with the seven-minute slow burner ‘Hail Mary’, on which McDonald questions the relevance of himself, asking “Does the sound of my voice still carry/Any kind of message still important to you?” The answer, it seems, is yes. Either way, it’s clear from the first few lines that McDonald still has his powerful gruff of a voice; age has been kind, and not diminished his trademark vocal power.
Seven minutes later, and McDonald gets hit by bad case of the blues, on the eight minute ‘Just Strong Enough’. Reminiscent of the electric-acoustic blues of BB King and the gritty Memphis soul of Hi Records, McDonald’s warm pleads make for a pointed change of direction. In fact, it’s quite unlike anything McDonald has done before, and actually it’s pretty decent, if perhaps a little long. But if there’s one thing McDonald is on Wide Open, it’s unapologetic: if he wants an eight minute blues scorcher, then he’ll have one, and to hell with us, the critics.
Nearly fifteen minutes later, and we are just moving onto the album’s third song (of twelve). Released earlier this summer, ‘Find It in Your Heart’ is perhaps the closest thing to a classic McDonald track as we get on Wide Open. It took a few spins for us to get into the groove, but now it’s one of our favourite’s of 2017. In many ways it’s classic Michael McDonald: a sophisticated production with McDonald’s distinctively gruff, but warm, voice layered over a thick soulful groove. Aided by virtuoso bassist Marcus Miller, McDonald has crafted a perfect mid-tempo groove (complete with sax breaks) ideal for a sunny day. It’s uplifting, it’s funky, and McDonald sounds great.
If you’re looking for a little country (cue gag from the Blues Brothers: “We have both types of music here, country and Western) then ‘Half Truth’ and ‘Blessing in Disguise’ are for you. They demonstrate, once again, how versatile McDonald can be, although perhaps they are more suited to country’s latest superstars than the ex-Doobie Brother. If, however, country and Western isn’t your choice of music, check out ‘Honest Emotion’, a piece of raw sadness that McDonald sings quietly, almost hushed, compared to his usual powerful gruffness. The string arrangement combines with McDonald’s haunting vocal to create something really quite powerful, making it one of Wide Open’s highlights.
The funnest song on Wide Open is without a doubt ‘If You Wanted to Hurt Me’. The opening bars sound like something off a Hall & Oates greatest hits compilation, but as the song goes further along it becomes incredibly funky, and McDonald proves, yet again, that his voice hasn’t aged with time. It has horns, it has synths and more great bass playing from Marcus Miller – all creating a unique brand of Michael McDonald disco. He even slips in a little ad lib tribute to Martha Reeves, screaming ‘Nowhere to run/nowhere to hide’.
The album’s final three songs are a mixed bag: ‘Beautiful Child’ is a tad mushy (it reminded me of some of the mush Lionel Richie put out on his forgettable 2009 album Just Go), ‘Too Short’ takes a couple of spins to really get into, and the album closer ‘Free a Man’ is the best of the three, with McDonald providing a sense of social consciousness in a confusing and angry time, reflected by the lengthy rock guitar solo at the end of the six-minute epic.
To conclude then, Wide Open is a great new addition to the Michael McDonald catalogue. It’s not the most accessible in the Michael McDonald catalogue – it requires the listener to pay full attention to be able to grasp what McDonald is trying to do. At times, the album can feel a bit lengthy but it is a mostly pleasant album in which McDonald clearly feels free to explore musically, unrestrained from expectations that surround him. His effortless ease across soul, funk, pop, country and R&B is a joy to listen to, and it serves as a reminder of how good he really is as an artist. It isn’t a groundbreaking album, but it didn’t need to be. What we have been gifted is an excellent new album, up their with the best of his solo work. Michael McDonald is cool again, and he’s doing things his way, unapologetically so.