THE ALBUM BLACKBYRDS -- Better Days (Fantasy F-9602).
The cover of "Better Days," the Blackbyrds' latest album, shows the four members of the group floating euphorically in a hot-air-balloon over a craggy, futuristic landscape. It's apropos of the music therein, all of which is tasteful and bouyant almost to the point of zero gravity, but the mode of transportation might provide just a tad more symbolism than was intended.
Musical light years ahead of most funk bands, more restrained than Earth, Wind and Fire, not exactly disco but definately dance-minded, the Blackbyrds have every reason to expect a bright future, provided they're able to distinguish it from the past.
Previous Blackbyrds albums -- most notably "Flying Start" -- gave evidence of the band's strong studio skills and hook-saavy instincts. here, we get only glimpses, and though George Duke's production is slick as spit on ceramic, all the technology in the world can't cover up the smarm oozing out of these lyrics.
Of course, glib lyrics are not a solid basis for grudgery: Currently holding nicely in the Top 40 is a tune entitled "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da," and the Beatles got a little lunch money out of "yeah, yeah yeah." But the "everybody's so happy" spirit of most of the songs on "Better Days," particularly the title song, is beyond utopia. Silver Lining City. Nancy Reagansville. And it affects the quality of the music.
For how can you get into a really greasy groove -- which the Blackbyrds are infinitely capable of -- if you don't want to splatter anyone in the process? Even "Do You Wanna Dance" sounds impossibly polite, and the whoop of joy that sets the title cut into motion is quickly shushed by a staid pattern of chord changes.
The group wisely eschews the tendency toward musical hysteria that trips up Earth, Wind and Fire, but the process it passes up the passion as well. Eventually, every track seems to settle into a collection of riffs more domesticated than sophisticated. Which is just fine for Rod Stewart or Donna Summer, but not for a group with the collective talent and technique of the Blackbyrds.
So what do we really want from these people? Agonized shrieks a la Led Zeppelin? Nihilistic Nietzscheism a la Public image Ltd? Exhibitionistic Bach-rock a la Keith Emerson?
Well, no. But at a time when every white group worth its amplifiers is digging desperately for the black roots of American music, while black music itself is veering dangerously toward the void, it would be a cinch for the Blackbyrds to step into a leadership position. They can't do this by rehashing old Brecker Brothers grooves or helping us dance, however tastefully, into oblivion.
Meanwhile, as they take us on another ride in their beautiful balloon, they might consider the idea that the fear of a terrible ending is often disguised as hope for a new beginning.