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Minute by Minute
The Doobie Brothers

Warner Bros. 3193
Released: December 1978
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 87
Certified 3x Platinum: 10/22/84

Michael McDonaldEver since Michael McDonald joined the Doobie Brothers nearly four years ago, the group has skirted greatness without ever being able to mold its disparate sensibilities into a single, driving force. That's a shame, because singer/keyboardist McDonald (an ex-Steely Dan) is a major rock talent and the Doobies' only hope of becoming something more than a fading, middleweight, "people's" boogie band.

To my ears, Michael McDonald is probably the greatest white blues singer since Joe Cocker. If his voice isn't as large as Cocker's once was, it's as potent emotionally: this man could sing the New York telephone book and break your heart. He's also a gifted songwriter with formidable melodic sophistication. Heavily syncopated, chromatic and influenced by both jazz and R&B, McDonald's tunes are charged with the same tensions that mark his vocals. After a while, one begs for relief. But these nervous, obsessional, spiritually introverted compositions promise a release that's not immediately forthcoming. Even his most famous and outgoing number, "Takin' It to the Streets," doesn't resolve firmly or provide a choral catharsis. With its angular, edgy melody, the song remains potentially explosive, a threat more than a deed.

The Doobie Brothers - Minute by Minute
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Minute by Minute, the third Doobie Brothers album après McDonald, suggests that the Doobies will never be the populist Steely Dan their admirers have envisaged since Takin' It to the Streets unless some painful decisions are made very soon. Apparently, there's a basic conflict of sensibilities between high-spirited guitarist Patrick Simmons, who personifies the group's old-time, groovy-hippie/just-folks stance (and who, in concert, can still work up a crowd with his amiably corny rabble-rousing), and McDonald's surprisingly taciturn keyboard intricacies.

On Takin' It to the Streets and Livin' on the Fault Line, Simmons held his own as a writer and singer well enough so that he and McDonald appeared to complement each other. Not this time. Minute by Minute's three predominantly Simmons-penned Cubano numbers ("Sweet Feelin'," "You Never Change," "Dependin' on You") are no better than second-rate lounge fare, while his "Steamer Lane Breakdown" is a pleasant but trivial bit of streamlined bluegrass. "Don't Stop to Watch the Wheels," a would-be full-tilt boogie, fails to tilt.

Though there's no question that the new record's best songs are all primarily by Michael McDonald, even his work has suffered a slight loss. "Open Your Eyes," a jittery post-Motown ballad written by McDonald with Lester Abrams and Patrick Henderson, is the LP's big winner. It's followed, in descending order of quality, by "Here to Love You," "What a Fool Believes," "Minute by Minute" and "How Do the Fools Survive?" Only the latter (a monologue by God in the words of Carole Bayer Sager!) rings false, partly because the intense physicality of McDonald's singing precludes any intellectual detachment. The box score shows four substantial cuts, each of them arranged and produced in the spare, icy, pop-jazz style that's been the hallmark of the "new" Doobie Brothers sound.

Though one can understand the band's and producer Ted Templeman's reasons for going after a "live" studio sound (unfortunately, the instruments here are sometimes woefully out of tune), the maturity of McDonald's music demands more elaborate production than Templeman has ever supplied. On Minute by Minute, the continued absence of such production seems yet another symptom of the Doobies' failure to come to grips with either their populist ideals or the imbalance of their talents.

The only way out of this impasse is for the group to determinedly cultivate sophistication at the expense of "democracy," and give Michael McDonald even more of a central role than he has now. That's what Jefferson Starship failed to do for Marty Balin -- and they paid heavily for it, at least in artistic terms. Templeman must also help the Doobies develop full-scale arrangements that better utilize their lead guitarist and other Steely Dan veteran, Jeff Baxter. With all the firepower this band has -- one of rock's stronger rhythm sections, several writers and vocalists, an excellent lead guitarist and a remarkable lead singer -- the Doobie Brothers shouldn't be content merely to skirt greatness.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 2/22/79.

Bonus Reviews!

The Doobies return to basics with 10 exceptional cuts based in rock but influenced heavily with jazz. Closer to their Takin' It To The Streets LP than the more recent Livin' On The Fault Line in production values, the newest disk carefully delineates the differences in style which form the Doobies' strength. There are five keyboard-oriented vocals by Michael McDonald ("Here To Love You," and "Minute By Minute" are noteworthy) and four guitar-oriented vocals by Patrick Simmons ("Sweet Feelin'" and "Don't Stop To Watch The Wheels" rank high). A delightful bonus by Simmons is a bluegrass/rock instrumental, "Steamer Lane Breakdown." Best cuts: "Open Your Eyes," "Sweet Feelin'," "Here To Love You," "Steamer Lane Breakdown," "Minute By Minute."

- Billboard, 1979.

Tight playing combines with moderately intricate rhythms and harmonies for sexy, dancy pop music of undeniable craft (at least on side one). And as we all know, they could be doing a lot worse. B

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

In all probability, the Doobies were as surprised as anyone at the runaway commercial and critical success of their 1979 album. Two of the songs achieved instant standard status ("What A Fool Believes" and the title track "Minute By Minute"), both becoming favourites for cover versions, but the consistent quality of the album is what recommends it on CD.

Careful premastering produces a muscular yet "see-through" sound but there is very slight softening that puts the sound one notch back from the very finest modern digital productions. Nor are dynamics quite what one would expect from the combination of Michael McDonald's shrill soulful voice and Compact Disc reproduction.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

Due to health problems, founding member Tom Johnson departed after Livin' on the Fault Line, leaving Michael McDonald as the leader of The Doobie Brothers. McDonald, in turn, wrote his finest set of songs for Minute by Minute, highlighted by the number one single "What a Fool Believes." * * * *

- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The second Doobie Brothers album to be recorded without founding member Tom Johnston, who had retired from the band due to health, Minute By Minute is a classy blend of West Coast rock, melodic pop and white soul, thanks in no small part to Michael McDonald's soaring vocals. The album has a funkier outlook than is to be found on previous works, and has a more polished sound than previous Doobie records, together with the title track, songs such as "Open Your Eyes," "Depending On You" and "You Never Change" are slick in their composition, playing and production. Minute By Minute was their first Number One album in the US.

"What a Fool Believes" was the first of three Top 40 singles off their eighth gold album of the 1970s. Released on December 23 1978, Minute By Minute was the Number One LP in the US for five weeks and spent a total of 87 weeks on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart. In the UK the record did not even chart. It won four Grammys, including Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year for "What a Fool Believes," which also topped the US singles' chart and hovered outside the UK singles countdown at Number 31.

As of 2004, Minute By Minute was the #65 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

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