It’s really pretty hard to complain about this “The Essential” series of compilations from any particular of various artists. I remember having a pretty good time with the Commodores one, a band which I had no idea were beholden to any quality songs other than “Brick House” and “Easy.” I used to have The Essential Duke Ellington on CD and I must say it made for a gratifyingly exhaustive and eclectic listen to the big-band legend, whose albums might come off as too short or just insufficient in showcasing his overall vision.
They do, though, these “The Essential” releases, have the curious habit of placing the songs in chronological order, and so we get the cringe-worthy “Twist & Shout” selection opening up disc one, along with a lot of other primitive industry detritus. I’ll skip to disc two, thank you very much, which opens with “It’s Your Thing,” their most ubiquitous hit, and from there lays the groundwork for a smooth ride of some of the most consistently rhythmic and enjoyable ’70s soul you’re likely to find on one collection anywhere.
Now, this later phase is not above dabbling in covers, either: luckily Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Love the One You’re with” and War’s “Spill the Wine” both surface in the form of funky, lively renditions, somehow assimilating under the general Isley interface of care-free, funky soul music with eclectic instrumentation. It’s also interesting to note that two of these songs were sampled to very high profile on major hits of ’90s hip-hop, with “Footsteps in the Dark, Pts 1 & 2” buoying Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and “Between the Sheets” granting “Big Poppa” its musical skeleton. It’s amazing to heed, too, that the Isleys were really making music that was so much ahead of its time — really the sound and instrumentation on each of these songs is so futuristic that it sounds more like the programmed masterwork of Timbaland or Pharrell than it does an actual, live band. So even if this band does continue to be as underrated and unheralded by white folk like me as they are, at least we have the satisfaction of knowing that their seed did fertilize mainstream music in a direct, objective way, for years to come. Here’s hoping they start getting the proper treatment for such a level of influence. He**, even their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1992 seems overshadowed by a complete flannel overhaul in the fashion world and a pot-smoking president taking office.
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