The Impressions’ “The Never Ending Impressions” Reviewed
The sophomore slump is a real thing, everyone from the Strokes to Mase suffered through it,and the Impressions could be the poster child for slumping on their second album, The Never Ending Impressions released in 1964. This isn’t a disaster, among its successes is that unlike their Motown contemporaries it is a real, although schizophrenic, album. The eight songs written by Curtis Mayfield go from good to great, with two of the songs among the third tier of Mayfield compositions. But while the arrangements are all good enough and the musical performances stellar though anonymous (Mayfield’s guitar has disappeared), it is the worst sort of reach for the charts, one that doesn’t get there at the price of an internal integrity. The four Great American Songbook covers are big fails and as a chart move, it only reached #54. Probably a mix of pressure from their record company to crossover, Mayfield’s own ambitions, and producer Johnny Pate delving into his wheelhouse, is behind The Impressions worst moments, and a terrible “The Lemon Tree” is Mayfield’s nadir. He should have refused to play it.
Let’s stay with the covers for a moment: “Satin Doll” -how could they mess up Duke Ellington’s masterpiece? Forget Ella (a given), both The Coasters and later The Stylistics have versions that swing and soul and The Impressions sound like a cover band in a supper club. It is a baffling performance and a middle of the road attempt to glom onto the Mills Brothers. “You Always Hurt The One You Love” and “September Song” appear to have arrived from another album entirely and stick out like a sore thumb, though the falsetto reach on “September Song” is sweet. Can Curtis sing it? Yes. But can Pate and Curtis arrange it for Curtis and Sam Gooden and Fred Cash? Not very well. It doesn’t help that Mayfield is also a tenor so they have two tenors and a bass, so when they aren’t playing his songs, the arrangements are difficult. It was just a bad idea.
The entire opening of the album is off putting. The first two songs, “Sister Love” and “Little Boy Blue” are minor stuff and it doesn’t recover till five songs in. If you could remove “You Always Hurt The Ones You Love,” the next five songs are first rate. “Girl You Don’t Know Me” is captivating 60s soul as it finds Curtis entirely comfortable with the sounds of 1964, a modern equivalent might be Jay-Z performing mumble rap. “I Gotta Keep On Moving” is that place where Gospel morphs into nascent funk, it holds back a little but if it let go it wouldn’t swing, it would hit. “I’m So Proud,” which opens with a lift from “A Summer Place,” but is a little too reticent for what it truly is: a black pride anthem as black love manifesto. Other performers realized this and everyone from Todd Rundgren to the Isley Brothers to Rosie And The Originals tried it, though the one to hear is Isaac Hayes deeply soulful 1981 version on Lifetime Thing. It is the best thing on Never Ending without being the best performance. “That’s What Love Will Do” is a signpost for their third album, it is more than just Chicago Soul and Stax horns, it is Sam Cooke in the new age, fueled immensely by the horns which more than punctuate on the bridge, it carries the song full momentum forward. A Mayfield masterpiece. Two of the last four songs are the Impressions as the Mills Brothers while the album peters outs and we are done with Curtis’s only slump.