Almost everyone agrees that 60s Motown is good, but Motown-esque records are far from a stylistic sure thing. This is only partly because most bands don’t have the Funk Brothers as a rhythm section: despite the directness of their formula, Motown songs often come at you obliquely. They cover a hefty emotional punch in gloves of charm, sweetness, melodic nuance or wit. The elemental force of the mighty mid-60s Four Tops hits was so effective because it was an exception, a glimpse of the storm beneath the skin.
More recent imitations of Motown, though, often miss the way it counterbalanced the delicate and the immediate: they start in yer face and they stay there. It can be invigorating. It can be exhausting. “A Town Called Malice” just about stays on the former side, but it’s a close thing – Paul Weller’s determination to cram half a lyric book into one song pushes the record’s intensity needles too high into the red and by the second half I don’t care what he’s singing about. “Stop dreaming of the quiet life – it’s the one you’ll never know” is a great opening line that the rest of the song doesn’t really live up to. (Though “Malice” is far less of a mess than the sulky “Precious”, a B-Side given ideas well above its station).
Luckily, the “You Can’t Hurry Love” bass riff carries us through, and in the first verse or two Weller’s hectoring helps drive the record not stifle it. “A Town Called Malice” shows that even if you love soul music, it’s not always playing to your strengths to make some – an idea Paul Weller was to spend a long time testing.