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Rare Pearls

Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls
The Jackson 5
Okay, okay, I know that this box set has been out for a few weeks now, but come on, I’ve been a bit busy, what with the whole defending the dissertation right around the corner.  And I’ve just set up this blog as a place for my musings, for lack of a better term. So please forgive the delay in my happy squeals of joy.
I can easily remember waking up on Saturday mornings as a child and racing anxiously to the tv for the requisite, long-awaited morning cartoons, one of which was the Jackson 5 show. I came along a bit too late for the early heyday of the group, and I didn’t quite understand the fervor over young-adult-sparkly-glove Michael because I wasn’t allowed to listen to much pop music growing up, but I knew who they were from that show. When I was approaching adolescence, though, the “oldies” station was granted permission in the house, so I rediscovered Motown and the Jackson 5 then, and it’s been a love affair ever since.
After Michael Jackson’s untimely death a few years back, the market was inundated with homages, re-releases, remixes, alternate takes, and of course, the ubiquitous “long-lost masterpieces.” It’d be easy to chuck this box set in with all of those and ignore it, but while, say, “Michael Jackson: The Stripped Mixes” may be appealing only to die-hard fans and collectors, this set of recordings could almost be two new stand-alone albums.
Well, two new albums of B-sides, perhaps, but a Jackson 5 B-side can battle it out with many of the best A-sides of other Motown artists any day of the week.  Take the song most frequently mentioned on reviews: the punchy, energetic “If the Shoe Don’t Fit.”  Okay, so the lyrics are a little awkward, the language doesn’t flow as easily as it does in their bigger hits, but Michael, Jermaine, and Tito (in a fabulous cameo) sell it like it’s gold. The music is as solid, the harmonies as sweet, as anything else they released in their ABC years. You want evidence of Michael’s soul? Listen to “I Got a Sure Thing,” a Booker T Jones/Al Bell Stax-terpiece. Sure, he interjects the same riff over and over again, a heartfelt, throaty wail to a love he was too young to have known yet, but he sells that riff every. single. time. Maybe at 12 he was not yet an innovator, but he was one hell of an imitator.
Not every track is quite of the quality of those two, but the wide variety of covers and styles is fascinating in and of itself. Check out a half-funky, half-funny cover of Randy Newman’s/Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” their version of Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright” (which is both reminiscent of Michael’s solo version of “Rockin’ Robin” and a foreshadowing of their later disco success with tracks like “Dancin’ Machine”), the Smokey Robinson-penned “I’m Your Sunny One (He’s my Sunny Boy),” originally written for and released by the Supremes as the B-side of “Love Child.” As so frequently happens with Jackson 5 covers, their version of this song blows the original out of the water. Diana Ross is careful with her vocals, each word carefully wrapped in cellophane and tied with a bow. Michael, on the other hand, oozes confidence, charm, and a youthful earnestness that wins you over from the first word. It may be my favorite track off of either disc.
For those more knowledgeable of the Jackson 5 oeuvre (and doesn’t that sound pretentious?), they will no doubt be delighted by the last track of the second disc, the original demo version of “Mama’s Pearl.” Originally penned as “Guess Who’s Making Whoopee with your Girlfriend,” hearing Michael using such adult lyrics is a bit jarring (that’s not to say that some of the young Jackson 5 songs didn’t treat adult subjects, but the writers at least candy-coated the words for their youthful singers). But as a demo, you can hear Michael experiment with phrasing and test out a dozen or more different kinds of improvisatory fills; you can almost hear the gears churning in his brain as he throws out these different fills like pasta against a wall, testing what sticks and what doesn’t. It’s not all about Michael, though – these two discs show Jermaine growing from a throaty but occasionally imprecise teen with an impressive leading presence to a young adult with a smooth, smooth delivery. Jackie, Tito, and Marlon are each featured more here than what most of the J5 greatest hits would have you believe, and in what should come as no surprise to anyone, they’re all solid, solid singers. It’s a real shame that Tito, in particular, didn’t do more solo work.
MJ fans might be, as I was, a bit disturbed by one track, “Someone’s Standing in my Love Light.” Featuring a spoken interlude by a young Michael, the listener can’t help but be impressed by his amazing delivery – in a different age, he would have ruled the stage as a song & dance actor (as he somewhat did later on with The Wiz). In one eerie moment, Michael yells “I can’t sleep!” – a harmless exclamation of his search for love, but a sad foreshadowing of his history of insomnia, which partially led to his death in 2009.  A bittersweet track, indeed.
At this point, for me, there just isn’t anything related to the Jackson 5 or Michael Jackson that I don’t want to listen to. The swarm of releases around MJ’s death, even the bad ones or the ones that the cynical will claim were made just for the money, are still all amazing. The re-releases, the re-mastered editions, the 20th/25th/30th/40th(?!?) anniversary box sets – I’ll take them all.  But in terms of quality, interest, and sheer fun, this set should be on anyone’s wishlist.  But I’ll warn you – the actual physical box set pressing is extremely limited, probably because of the amazing 45 of “If the Shoe Don’t Fit,” so the odds are I’ve whetted your appetite in vain. However, the digital version is still worth the money – so get cracking!

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