The Stylistics – Love is Back in Style (review)

The Stylistics – Love is Back in Style (Omnivore Recordings)

Philly soul stalwarts updated for the Nineties

The Stylistics had a string of hits in the early Seventies that were unparalleled in their sultriness.  Led by the unmistakable soaring vocals of Russell Thompkins Jr, and flanked by Airrion Love and Herb Murrell, each single was enveloped in lush arrangements courtesy of producer Thom Bell.  “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “You Are Everything,” and “Break Up to Make Up” are just a few of their numerous offerings.  

Love is Back in Style reunites the trio of vocalists for the final time, for an album issued originally in 1996.  Led by producer Preston Glass, the idea was to update the group’s sound for the then-current times, while also retaining what made them legends in the first place.

First off, Thompkins is absolutely fabulous here.  Over two decades had passed since their heyday, yet his voice is angelic as ever.  The album opens with “I Once Had a Love,” which successfully recreates that signature sound, right down to the electric sitar, strings and uncanny chord structure, all done over a slow jam tempo.  This could’ve easily been a hit if it had been issued during their peak years.

Even more of a treat is hearing their sound updated.  “She’s All That” has a juiced-up digital groove, and gasp! a rap in the middle.  Thompkins voice absolutely soars on another ballad, “Shoulder,” where he shares vocals with Love, while “Keeping You To Your Promise” is spine-tingling good.  “Have You Ever Been in Love” sounds like another lost track from the Seventies.  

While I like the upbeat tracks, they do all have a sameness to them, especially the beat, which kind of makes them blend together.  But, let’s be honest here: the Stylistics were never known for their peppy material. Their wheelhouse is sweet, sexy ballads, and there are plenty of them here.

Another standout is “Love Can Heal a Wounded Heart,” which actually features all three vocalists, Thompkins, Love and Murrell.  “You Must Love Loneliness” is a happy medium; it’s got a beat, but still retains the fire of the ballads.

As a bonus, there’s a remix of “She’s All That” which features rapper Biggy Smallz.

Love Is Back in Style originally came out on the small Marathon Records and quickly disappeared.  Kudos to Omnivore for unearthing this lost treasure.  Fans of Philly soul take notice.  This album is surprisingly solid.  —Tony Peters