THE ALBUM -- The Pointer Sisters, "Special Things," Planet (P-9).; THE SHOW -- In the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Sunday at 9.
When I was younger and sillier and spending more time chasing the highway than was good for me, my traveling companions and I passed many an hour playing a game we called Sheet Music. A bit depraved and cynical, Sheet Music consisted of singing the most rousing rock hits of the day, stripping them of all accidentals, harmonies that did not occur at third of fifth intervals, gratuitously diminished sevenths -- in short, making them should like, well, like sheet music reads; safe and soulless as a slice of white bread.
It took the Pointer Sisters to convince me that (a) the game was not exactly original and (b) like any other '70s banality, it could be made into a full-scale career. I'm talking megabucks. People magazine. Guest slots on "Midnight Special."
Every now and then, though, the Pointers drop a clue that the financial rewards of such a career do not make up for the lack of spiritual gratification, and it's in these moments that the game is most painfully exposed. "Special Things," their latest LP, is a continuation in this frustrating vein. Once again, the sisters allow their glorious pipes to be used as conduits for mainstream pop slop, while producer Richard Perry further clogs the works with treacly string arrangements and disco swill.
Only once on the entire album do the Pointers display any guts. "He's So Shy," a single that deserves its current Top-Ten status, is an authentic piece of '50s girl music that ranks with Crystals' "He's Sure the Boy I Love for sheer pop sensuality. Part of its success is owed to its cowriter Cynthia Weil, who with Barry Mann wrote the aforementioned classic as well as many others of that genre. But the power of the tune can only be attributed to the Pointer Sisters' refusal to strip its feminine soul bare. "I know it's driving me crazy," wails June in the chorus like a cat in heat, and in that instant every other insincere track on the album is in sewer.
Which raises questions. The inability to make much out of songs by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager is understandable, but why do the Pointers play Sheet Music with Bill Champlin's beautiful "Here Is Where Your Love Belongs"? If they are incapable of rocking, why did they sound so steamy backing up a less-than intense Chicago on "Skinny Boy"? If they are being pushed around by producers and management, how come their perential one-shot wonders ("How Long [Bet You Got a Chick on the Side]" and Bruce Springsteen's "Fire") sound so authoritative and self-assured?
Every game gets boring after a awhile, and the charts seem to indicate that Pointers fans are less willing to wade through their albums to get at the one solid offering. If the Pointer Sisters don't stop playing Sheet Music soon, they're likely to discover, as others have, that the joke gets to be a depressing reality.