FOR ALL practical purposes, disco is gone and funk is now the big sound in rhythm & blues -- a comforting development for those who believe good art will prevail.
Now you can hear funk's influence on everyone from Stevie Wonder to the Talking Heads. With such acceptance, though, come dangers.
Earth, Wind & Fire's new double album, "Faces" (ARC/Columbia KC2 36795), is a move toward establishment funk. Like a large corporation, 117 performers and 19 songwriters contributed to the 15 songs. The songs push a bland form of universal love. The results are highly professional and mostly boring.
"Faces" is an admirable and predictable as a UNICEF poster. The cover features 50 faces of every age, nationality and gender. It's easy to pick out the nine Earth, Wind & Fire members; they're the ones wearing the halos.
For a long time, Earth, Wind & Fire's music was so powerful that their clumsy cosmic lyrics didn't matter. The singing and playing is still first-rate on "Faces." Unfortunately, the songwriting has fallen into a rut in the middle of the road.
Maurice White -- who co-wrote all but two of the songs -- is probably the worst lyricist in pop music today. This is no slight achievement, considering the competition from Harry Chapin, Pink Floyd and the Commodores. But White deserves the recognition for lines like: "While you pout, is your world in doubt? It's all about./Love won't let you out of the scheme."
Most of the songs on "Faces" are indistinguishable. They all bounce along on midtempo Latin percussion. White and Philip Bailey weave their supple falsettos into one breathy harmony after another. It's all easy listening rather than exciting music.
The electric keyboards and guitars that once gave the band a rock-'n'-roll edge have been relegated to very minor roles. The cross-rhythms that once created so much tension have been smoothed into an easy beat. The third-world musical influences have been reduced to short fragments between songs.
The one strength that survives is the superb horn section, probably the best in pop music. Saxophonist Don Myrick in particular wakes up more than one song with his solos.
A few tracks stand out. The first single, "Let Me Talk," copies Sly Stone's "Stand" intelligently and capably. "Back on the Road" is the one convincing rocker. The closing title track is seven minutes of strong horn and keyboard solos.
If Earth, Wind & Fire are the proverbial superstars spoiled by Hollywood success, then Prince -- a 20-year-old prodigy from Minneapolis -- is the proverbial challenger from the hinterlands.
He's already made three records single-handedly. The first two featured intoxicating Stevie Wonder-like music and throwaway lyrics.
His latest, "Dirty Mind" (Warner Bros. BSK 3478), is the first with a complete personal vision, and is the most exciting funk of the year. He sings frankly about all kinds of consenting sex on songs such as "Head" and "Sister." Whether or not you agree with Prince's kinky eroticism, his vision of love is far more specific and compelling than White's.
Even if Prince's lyrics weren't so explicit, his music itself would be sexually provocative. Prince has captured the Parliament/Funkadelic throb without all the clutter of that big band.
Prince's bright melodies, fresh falseto and steady groove are enough to seduce most listeners. Under these come-ons, though, is an exotic jungle of squirming lead guitars and squiggling synthesizers. Every piece of the puzzle satisfies and every piece counts.
The first single, "Uptown," is the best come-on of all. When the seductive verses burst into the exuberant chorus, Prince cries: "Everybody's going uptown?" It's impossible to resist tagging along.