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Family Reunion
The O'Jays

Philadelphia International PZ 33807
Released: November 1975
Chart Peak: #7
Weeks Charted: 34
Certified Platinum: 11/21/86

In the cover painting the three O'Jays stand smiling childishly in the midst of a very extended "family" which includes an Eskimo, a Tartar, a bald Nubian, Asians, Scandinavians, a Mexican, one each of almost every nationality. "Remember, the family that prays together stays together," coproducer Kenneth Gamble writes in his liner notes. "Put the 'Unity' back into the family." It's only with misgivings that the listener puts on the album's first cut, "Unity," but after a few seconds it's evident that all is well. This time out, the sloganeering that occasionally got in the way of the O'Jays music on previous releases is kept in the background. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are back in top form as the masters of studio soul, and arrangers of Norman Harris and Bobby Martin have come up with something more than repeats of past successes. This is a first-class O'Jays LP.

The O'Jays have more visceral vocal attacks and a more individual group sound than Philadelphia International's other artists. While Harold Melvin's Blue Notes furnish an almost antiseptic backdrop for the gritty but heavy-handed lead vocals of Theodore Pendergrass and the Three Degrees negotiate demanding charts with deceptive ease, the O'Jays' church roots always shine through, creating an impression of improvisation even when routines are carefully worked out in advance. They have always been the most unpredictable of the Philly groups, working against as well as with Gamble and Huff's elaborate productions as the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs once did with the conceits of Holland-Dozier-Holland. For this reason their singles and LPs have been consistently exciting, even when the producers weighted down their high-flying spirits with turgid socio-political statements and excessive sentimentality.

Family Reunion has a few uneasy moments, such as the paternalistic recitation that turns its title tune into a crashing bore, but at its core are four of the best examples of Gamble/Huff/O'Jays magic on record. "Unity" bursts with surging power and boasts a clean, fresh-sounding orchestral arrangement by Thom Bell's younger brother, Tony. "I Love Music," the current single, is irresistible. Where others would have fitted its bright-eyed, simplistic lyrics to a bubbly major-scale melody, Gamble and Huff rescue it from banality by providing a minor/modal tonality and more of MFSB's rousing drive. "Stairway to Heaven" takes its major melodic cue from "Layla" but still manages to captivate with its concluding ostinato section.

The LP's high point is "Livin' for the Weekend," another case of ingenious producing and arranging, turning a more or less trite set of lyrics into a near masterpiece. It begins with a sudden acoustic piano crescendo that settles down into an updated boogie groove -- it sounds like Leon Huff is back at the keyboard. An electric guitar interweaves tasty, B.B. King-like punctuations while the group complains about working hard through the week and looks forward with relish to the weekend party to come. When the weekend finally arrives, the tune's tempo suddenly doubles and a series of lines for saxophones and brass enters, recalling the heyday of the Memphis Horns. All three O'Jays romp over the pounding beat with shrieks, squeals and sighs until at long last, the partying is over for another week, the time drops back down to the original trudging boogie.

Rarely have Gamble and Huff been able to paint as vivid a picture of the Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, of their youths and of the aspirations of the industrial proletariat who buy most of the millions of records they sell. And only the O'Jays have the energy and improvisational adaptability to bring the picture to life.

Sigma Sound's Joe Tarsia has done his usual state-of-the-art engineering job here, and the contributions of the house musicians have never been more apt. Gamble and Huff hardly need the sort of rhetoric they've saddled the O'Jays with in the past when they can speak this eloquently and directly through their music.

- Robert Palmer, Rolling Stone, 2/26/76.

Bonus Reviews!

In which Jesse Jackson (or is it Reverend Ike) goes disco, proving that the words do too matter. The self-serving, pseudo-political pap Kenny Gamble sets his boys to declaiming here underlines the way the overripeness of this vocal and production style can go mushy, which it does. Even the working-class party anthem "Livin' for the Weekend" is ruined by the rest of the side -- some play-her-like-a-violin soft-core and the unspeakable (would it were unsingable) "I Love Music." Moral: the rich and the superrich shit -- the nouveau-riche can fuck you over too. C

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

The O'Jays were in one of their most productive periods during the '70s. The Gamble/Huff team was giving them consistently strong material, often classic songs, and their three-member harmonies and shared leads were galvanizing, particularly those by Eddie Levert. The title track did well, but the album tended to be overlooked because it was sandwiched between Survival and Message In Our Music. Yet it attained more pop attention than the more heralded (and probably superior) Ship Ahoy. * * *

- Ron Wynn, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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