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V/A - Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown’s Mowest Story 1971-73

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Artist: V/A

Album: Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown’s Mowest Story 1971-73

Label: Light in the Attic

Review date: Jul. 19, 2011

Motown’s reputation as a well-oiled machine is nearly indisputable. Its catalog throughout the 1960s and early ’70s remains an integral part of the soundtrack to an era. Motown was a business first, though, methodically releasing hundreds and hundreds of records via various subsidiaries, some good but completely forgotten, others just not very good. And while poppy soul and R&B made up the core of Barry Gordy’s empire, the famed impresario wasn’t above trying his hand at other genres and styles in search of a hit. (Remember, during a particularly rough patch in the early ’80s, the label even courted The Fall.)

Motown had reached a cross roads by the dawn of the ’70s. Bruised by the departure of songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland, the company was in need of some fresh blood and perhaps a new outlook. Through a combination of big-business hubris and a need to stay relevant in a constantly shifting, ever-competitive music business, Gordy, like a music biz Walter O’Malley, moved shop from Detroit to Los Angeles. MoWest, Gordy’s short-lived west coast subsidiary, was established in 1971 as a test-run that would precede the full-on Motown migration a few years later. Light in the Attic’s 16-track set Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love presents the highlights from the label’s brief existence.

The plan was fairly simple: Combine the mechanized production and songwriting approach that worked so well in Detroit with the sun-baked vibes of Southern California. Curiously, given Motown’s monumental releases in the early ’70s, the subsidiary was a flop and produced nary a major hit. That said, the MoWest discography isn’t without its considerable charms.

While the tick-tock production quality of Hitsville U.S.A. is still present here, the groove is considerably more mellow, jazzy and loose, and can be attributed in part to the use of outside producers and L.A. sessions players. Tracks such as "Battened Ship" by Odyssey, "A Heart Is a House" by Nu Page, and "I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel" by Suzie Ikeeda have a fluttering proto-disco feel and conjure images of gently coked-out Malibu key parties. Although the sounds on MoWest were varied and somewhat adventurous, none of them really tap into the sense of urgency that permeated the nation in the late 1960s and early ’70s — an energy that infused, say, Edwin Starr’s "War" and The Temptations "Ball of Confusion" back east.

Just as Motown smoothed the rough edges of harder, greasier R&B and soul for a middle-class white audience in the ’60s, so too did MoWest tame some of the counter-culture goings-on in La La Land as they related to the label’s output. Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, for example, certainly made their mark on ’60s pop, but one would never think of them as being particularly freaky; and their three breezy contributions to this set probably won’t change that.

If there’s a problem with this set, Valli epitomizes it. Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love is occasionally a little too groovy and meandering, particularly when compared to groundbreaking contemporaneous Motown releases such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, to name just one. Still, it’s futile to argue with the brilliance of Syreeta Wright and her collaborations with creative partner and ex-husband Stevie Wonder (represented here by "Black Maybe" and "I Love Every Little Thing About You"). "You’ve Got to Make the Choice" by The Sister’s Love and The Commodores’ "Don’t You Be Worried" are top notch ‘70s soul and a nod to what Gordy was capable of, regardless of geography.

MoWest’s failure is generally attributed to having been lost in the shuffle of a shifting and expanding entertainment empire. Still, when you compare nearly anything here to what was being released by the label just a few years prior (with the exception of Syreeta Wright), it’s clear that Gordy’s decision to leave for L.A. signaled the beginning of the end. MoWest was an interesting experiment and its results make for a nice single-disc comp of lost gems worth anyone’s time. But it’s also a reminder that there’s only one Motor City, and it’s Detroit.

By Nate Knaebel

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