Graded on the Curve:
The Doobie Brothers,
Takin’ It to the Streets

Talk about your unholy alliances. Michael McDonald and The Doobie Brothers? If you’re a fan of neither, it can only be compared to a disastrous corporate merger (remember AOL and Time Warner?) or, if you’re really a hater, the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

Ah, but if you’re a proud Yacht Rock captain, their coupling was a dream come true–the McDoobies’ first album, 1976’s Takin’ It to the Streets, produced not one but two smooth rock classics in the form of the title cut and “It Keeps You Runnin’.”

It was ace guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter who recommended fellow Steely Dan alum McDonald to the Doobs when Tom Johnston took sick with stomach ulcers (the result, no doubt, of massive guilt), so blame the stink on the Skunk if you want. But no matter where you stand on the band, there’s no denying that Mc’D’s addition gave the Doobie Brothers a new lease on life–their previous LP, 1975’s Stampede, included only one hit, and it was a cover. Despite continuing album sales, the Doobie Formula was growing stale, and the band’s quantum leap into easy listening kept them on FM radio.

Takin’ It to the Streets didn’t win the Brothers any critical love; The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, for one, famously dismissed it with the words, “You can lead a Doobie to the studio but you can’t make him think.” Oddly, Christgau seems not to have noticed the addition of McDonald and the band’s radical turn towards blue-eyed soul. No fan of either artist, he might have noted that their union was a laudatory thing, insofar as having them in the same place made it easier to keep an eye on both of them.

Takin’ It to the Streets is a classic example of splitting the difference right down the middle. You get some characteristic Doobies material–both opener “Wheels of Fortune” and the Memphis Horns-driven “8th Avenue Shuffle” epitomize the band’s blend of commercial boogie and highfalutin’ vocal harmonies–and some husky McDonald croon, and never the twain shall meet. The result? One Janus-faced LP. The new Doobies come off as a band trapped somewhere between their chooglin’ past and their blue-eyed soul future.

The McDonald songs are the keepers–there’s a good reason you never hear tunes like “Wheels of Fortune” (which tanked as a single), “For Someone Special” (gak!), and (God help us) “Rio” on the radio. The title track may be the soggiest revolutionary sentiment of all time, but the sound is revolutionary–McDonald’s indoobitable soul moves take the Doobies out of China Grove forever. And the same goes for “It Keeps You Runnin’,” on which Michael’s “Is he a baritone or is he a tenor” vocals ride the song’s slow and sinuous R&B groove to soft rock nirvana.

Neither’s as good a song as the immortal “What a Fool Believes,” but both ride head and shoulders above McDonald’s third musical contribution, “Losin’ End,” which plods. As for the joylessly jaunty (and Memphis Horns infested) “Carry Me Away,” on which McDonald also sings lead, it’s bad Steely Dan in the same way that bassist Tiran “I Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Sing” Porter’s “For Someone Special” is bad Steely Dan; if the Velvet Underground inspired a thousand good bands, the Dan–and I love ‘em to death–inspired a thousand shitty ones.

As for the Doobie numbers, well, they sound like recycled Doobie numbers–the acoustic guitars that open “Wheels of Fortune” (which also veers into Steely Dan territory) are the same acoustic guitars that open “Long Train Runnin’” and any number of other DB songs, the meshed vocals ditto. And how to describe Tom Johnston’s sole contribution to the LP, the oddly Motownish “Turn It Loose”? As Martha and the Vandellas meets Creedence Clearwater Revival? Nah… that makes it sound like a better song than it actually is.

“8th Avenue Shuffle” is B. Springsteen’s “10th Avenue Freeze Out” sans balls, swing, and brains; as for the lamentable “Rio,” it’s Brazilian-flavored jazz-pop dreck along the lines of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana”–whenever I hear it I samba right out of the room.

The Doobies-McDonald merger was a profitable one for both parties; it rejuvenated the careers of the former and transformed the latter into a bearded, mush-mouthed soft rock icon. For those who enjoy their music over easy, Takin’ It to the Streets marked the beginning of one very smooth collaboration. As for the haters, they took to the courts demanding stricter enforcement of antitrust laws, claiming the McDoobies constituted an illegal monopoly on suck.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C

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