Philadelphia International KZ 32408
Released: October 1973
Chart Peak: #11
Weeks Charted: 48
Certified Gold: 1/21/74
It's been more than a year since the O'Jays' last album, their spectacular breakthrough, Back Stabbers. Now they're back with producers Gamble and Huff (but minus arranger Thom Bell) to try for the second plateau. They make it, sure, but not without some dubious overreach for Significance and a silly pratfall or two.
The title track, a nearly ten-minute epic evocation of slave ships, is overreach itself and so all the more impressive for working so effectively. Opening with a kind of sound-effect symphony (waves, creaking sails, the crackling of whips), it builds dramatically and breaks with the group chanting, "Ship ahoy." The call, and the song itself, is at once deeply ominous and oddly, perhaps ironically, exultant. The rich contradiction of moods is sustained by a rhythmic rise and fall of the powerful ebb and flow of the vocals. One of the most ambitious and successful attempts to make a Serious Statement in black popular music.
Trouble is, the albums full of Serious Statements. At the other end of the spectrum, somewhere below zero, is the albums catchy ecology song, "This Air I Breathe." Sample lyric: "Why don't they find a solution/To what's causin' the pollution?" Give it the Staple Singers Award for High-Minded Bunk.
Still better is the stunningly produced "For the Love of Money," full of eerie echo effects and subtle vocal distortions on the choruses, none of them thrown away for cuteness' sake, but kept knife-sharp throughout. The message: "Save your soul, don't sell it," delivered with some of the album's strongest and most complexly arranged vocals.
Three of the remaining cuts are love songs, all but one unexceptional. But that one, "Now That We Found Love," is terrific, a beautiful, moving celebration. And then there's the hard-bumping, gospel-tinged "Put You Hands Together," which sounds like "Love Train" meets the Jackson 5's "Get It Together," and should be just right for the kids on the Soul Train line, with a fine hallelujah break under the end to give some album-cut class.
Because the group -- Eddie Levert, William Powell and Walter Williams -- is strong enough to carry the most ornate Gamble and Huff productions, on Ship Ahoy they've driven the Philadelphia team higher than before without losing sight of the dance floor.
- Vince Aletti, Rolling Stone, 1/17/74.
Every time side two gets rolling my ass tells my brain to go away -- "For the Love of Money" is that great, although it's all (gradually) downhill from there. But when I put on side one my brain kicks in, and by brain is right -- not a song I ever want to hear again. B
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
- Ron Wynn, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The Sound of Philly was lush, soulful and richly orchestrated. Emerging at the end of the 60s during a time of great politicization among musicians and audience alike, songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created a unique and identifiable studio sound, which saw them rivalling Berry Gordy's Tamla Motown as the pre-eminent dance label in the world. The O'Jays, and almost veteran vocal fourpiece by the time of their single success with "Backstabbers," found themselves, like the Temptations at Motown, giving voice to a political message. But where the Tempts had been simple ("War, what is it good for?") the O'Jays were dealing with a much more complex issue. The title track, "Ship Ahoy," is an incredibly soulful lament for the African slaves dragged to America under the whip (the song comes complete with whiplash sound effects). And the rest of the album tackles pollution ("The Air I Breathe"), envy ("Don't Call Me Brother"), capitalism (the brilliant "For The Love of Money") and sex ("Now That We Found Love"). And all of it set to a perfectly danceable soundtrack. This is a unique and remarkable album; the songs on it are as intelligent and as relevant as anything by Irving Berlin or George Gershwin. And a whole lot funkier.
- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.
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