When you've meant as much to music as George Benson has you've earned the right to do pretty much anything you want to. Apparently with the release of Irreplaceable
what George wants is a song that will break into the urban hip-hop market. That's right, folks. George is "bangin' like a 808."
Under the production of Joshua P. Thompson who has worked with such contemporary soul singers as Joe, Benson tackles the smoothed-out groove in "Missing You", "Black Rose" and "Strings of Love." Though he sounds as good as ever, this material is pretty lightweight stuff. Benson effortlessly breezes through these songs, but he never seems fully engaged and neither is the listener.
More successful is the title track, "Irreplaceable" which showcases some sweet harmonies between Benson and a female vocalist named Nakea. "Cell Phone" has a dumb chorus ("Can a cell phone reach to heaven?"), but it's theme of losing a loved one reminds me of the Mariah Carey/Boyz II Men collaboration, "One Sweet Day." "Six Play" isn't quite the sly double entendre
it's meant to be, but George seems to be enjoying himself. More successful is "Stairway to Love" which is buoyed considerably by the backing vocals of Lisa Fischer and Sean Albright and a "It-Sounds-Like-Stevie-Wonder- But-It's-Not" harmonica solo by Gregoire Maret.
What most listeners are getting here is actually Irreplaceable: Version 2.0
. The album was originally slated for a spring release, but apparently George found some of the material quite
replaceable and went back into the studio. The original album that went out to critics had no instrumentals at all and was even more heavily hip-hop influenced. Benson must have worried that the absence of any showcases for his guitar playing would have alienated some of his listeners. It's an election year and the first priority is securing your base of support so out went three middling vocal tracks and in come three instrumentals. (The import version of the album retains the songs deleted from the domestic version and the instrumentals are absent).
The three instrumentals, "Take You Out," "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise" and "Arizona Sunrise" are by-the-numbers fare and seem like something Benson could have thrown together over a slow weekend. But if Benson is hedging his bets it's likely most fans will never notice how the three instrumentals seem to belong on a different album. Movies often go back for reshooting when they don't grade out well with test audiences. Irreplaceable
represents at least a year's worth of work so why not do all that's possible to make it a success?
Benson said in a interview that while he's gratified for the success of "This Masquerade" in 1976, that was 28 years ago. Benson refuses to meet anyone's expectations except his own. Instead of trying to strike lightning twice with another hit of the magnitude of "This Masquerade" Benson seems content to make music that pleases himself first, the fans second and the critics a distant third.
If you approach Irreplaceable
as Benson adhering to formula then it's not a terrible album. It doesn't significantly advance his musical legacy, but it doesn't trash it either. It's non-essential, but certainly not without interest. A minor effort from a monumental talent, but George Benson still commands both the interest and respect of the listener.