Funkadelic's "Uncle Jam Wants You" (Warner Brothers BSK 3371) is a deep sea of black dance music compared with the ankle-deep shallow of most disco.
The music on the album's first single, "(not just) Knee Deep," fulfills the promise of its title. As on all funk, the song features a sexy, syncopated "groove" built around a strong electric bass line. Reinforced by drums, rhythm guitar, electric keyboards and horns, the groove forms the song's central gravity.
In orbit around it are guitar solos by Gary Shider, Michael Hampton and Eddie Hazel that could have come from Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin. Bernie Orrell applies more imagination to his electric keyboards than Herbie Hancock has thus far mustered.
Vocal parts drift in and out of the song, aligning into three-tiered harmonies before breaking up and reforming. None of these musical ingredients clashes or blots another out. Everything is clarified by George Clinton's production and by the throbbing dance beat.
The subtitle to the Funkadelic record is "Save Dance Music From the Blahs." Not only does "Uncle Jam" rescue black dance music from the blahs of disco and fusion, but it also clearly articulates an alternative to mainstream American culture.
Black dance music has always been both an attraction and a threat to that culture. Ministers of both races have denounced the music in each of its guises: blues, cakewalk, ragtime, swing, rhythm & blues, rock 'n roll and soul. Just the same, youths of both races have always responed to its tantalizing promise.
Unable to stamp it out, the music industry as recently contained and diluted black dance music through formula disco; but the tradition has reemerged in the threatening, promising form of funk.
The first song on "Uncle Jam," "Freak of the Week," gives Clinton's view of disco: "Don't give her that one groove groovalistic, that disco sadistic/That one beat up and down just won't do."
An as antidote, Clinton has assumed the persona of Uncle Jam -- leader of "One Nation Under a Groove" -- to lead a new attack of "jes grew/ funk." The album's title cut is a comic recruiting pitch for his funk army, It's the musical comedy equivalent of a Richard Pryor show condensed to a 10-minute audio montage.
"Field Maneuvers" is a brilliant instrumental showcase for Clinton's platoon of Hendrix heirs. "Holly Wants to Go to California" is a moving, moody ballad by Bernie Worrell offset by crowd noises. "Freak of the Week" and "(not just) Knee Deep on the first side are 20 minutes of funk in its steadiest groove and its richest subtexture of solos.
"Uncle Jam Wants You" represents a slight slip from last year's "One Nation Under a Groove." There's nothing as lyrically stimulating as last year's "P.E. Squard" and nothing as instrumentally intoxicating as last year's live extended player that was part of the album.
"But "Uncle Jam" marks the clearest articulation yet of Clinton's philosophy or "funkology." The liner notes contain tributes to Ishmael Reed, Richard Pryor, Sun Ra, Sly Stone and others. Thus Clinton has allied himself with some of the most radical and effective of Afro-American artists. To understand what a breath of fresh air Clinton represents, one has only to survey the current state of black pop music.
Any bands have imitated the Funkadelic model of outlandish science-fiction costumes and dense, big-band sounds built around a bass groove. Most of these bands have the motions but not the magic, the flash but not the funk.
The best known of these outfits is the Commodores. Their new album, "Midnight Magic" (Motown M8-926M1), justifies the Funkadelic pun on their name: the "Commonbores." The Commodores take schmaltzy ballads and mindless party music and dress them up with fuzzy basses and punchy horns.
But all they get for their efforts are songs like their single, "Sail On," vapid enough to be sung by Debbie Boone. On that song and the No. 1 "Still," the sentimental piano and swamp of strings was out any spark of energy. Their up-tempo numbers, like the title track, have all the monotony of disco without the precision.
Another notable fake funker is Rick James, whose new album is "Fire It Up" (Gordy 990M1). James imitates Clinton slavishly, right down to the rebellious terminology, the keyboard accents, the call-and-response vocals and the thick textures. Unfortunately, James seems incapable of writing melodies, harmonies or arrangements that are memorable five seconds past the end of a song.
Cameo, whose new album is "Secret Omen" (Chocolate City CCLP2008), is simply a disco act trying to pass itself off as a funk band. The group is not too successful. There are allegedly seven different songs on this record, but the pattern of metronomic beat, gruff lead vocal, high harmony vocals, horn bleats and chugging guitars never varies. There are certainly no melodies to distinguish one song from the next.
A closer stab at the Clinton sound comes from Mutiny's "Mutiny on the Mamaship" (Columbia JC 36117). Mutiny is a funk octet led by Jerome Brailey, who was the Funkadelic drummer as recently as last year. The album title refers to Bailey's defection from the Funkadelic family or "Mothership." His liner note cartoons and lyrics attack Clingon as a funkless egomaniac.
Brailey doesn't have the same caliber of musicians as Clinton and Mutiny's lyrics are rather slight. Nevertheless "Mutiny on the Mamaship" is probably the best funk album not produced by George Clinton, Sly Stone or Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire).