ENERGY -- The Pointer Sisters, Planet P-1.
The Pointer Sisters have always faced a crisis in their identity: They have dabbled in so many musical streams that, while everybody likes them, nobody knows exactly what to do with them.
Their fondness for thrift-store fashions and scat singing gave them their initial image as nostalgics, latter-day Andrew Sisters. They began to season their albums with R&B and Allan Toussaint's neo-Cajun sass and, in 1975, won a Grammy for best country vocal performance for "Fairy Tale." But this lack of guiding artistic control eventually soured from eclecticism into randomness, and the group split up in 1977.
Now, three-quarters reunited (sister Bonnie is pursuing a solo career with Motown), Ruth, Anita and June Pointer have done it again -- flung themselves madly in all directions.
The result, their first Planet album, "Energy," is alternatingly first-rate and mediocre. Just a glance at the list of songwriters represented on the album -- Stephen Stills, Bruce Springsteen, Toussaint, Bob Welch, Walter Becker-Donald Fagen -- is enough to see that the Pointers are still bent on sublimating the whole to the sums.
The highlights of the album range from the sultry "Fire" (which has made them only the second act to get a Springsteen composition into the AM playlists), to the snapping Loggins-Messina "Angry Eyes," to the mysterious "Hypnotized."
Several of the other cuts are unobjectionable, but a few degenerate into mere dance music. "Come and Get Your Love" by busy British songwriter Russ Ballard (not to be confused with the Philly-sound falsetto hit of several years back) has little to recommend it in the way of lyrical flight -- the title phrase represents more than half the lines -- and less conviction.
Sly Stone's "Everybody Is a Star," with a strained tenor vocal by Ruth Pointer, falls flat, and the Sttely Dan classic "Dirty Work," which ought to slice as cleanly as a new razor, is instead undermined by the arch nasality of the "dramatic" vocals.
One of the best things about "Energy" is the spare, flexible production, which supports but never encloses the Sisters' vocal gymnastics. Veteran pop/R&B producer Richard Perry (Carly Simon, Leo Sayer) has assembled one of the finest ensembles of L.A. studio musicians imaginable: Waddy Wachtel and Danny Kortchmar of the old Section, most of Toto (who made their original mark as back-up men extraordinaire) and fleeting appearances by Little Feat's Billy Payne and Randy Bachman.
In particular, the presence of guitarist Waddy Wachtel, currently of Ronstadt's stage band, shines throughout, whether on slide, lead or rhythm.
While the album is fairly successful musically, and satisfactory financially (in the Billboard Top 20), it is philosophically unsatisfying. The Pointers will not reach their peak until they learn to blend the various strains of their work into a signature sound. The bright but accommodating perry may not be the one to administer the therapy.