LIONEL RICHIE Jr. is slowly shedding his decade-long affiliation with the Commodores, though he has yet to declare himself a solo artist. He's one of the bright spots on the music charts right now, with production and writing credits on the new Kenny Rogers ablum and extra duty as a singer on the new Commodores album and with Diana Ross on the theme song of the film "Endless Love." Rogers and Richie first hooked up on last year's immensely successful single, "Lady." One suspects Rogers made a deliberate career decision to expand his audience: Having conquered top 40, pop, easy listening and country, R&B must have seemed appealing to the Sultan of Sop. Going to Richie was as safe as it was daring, since Richie ahd written all of the Commodores' crossover hits: "Easy," "Three Times a Lady," "Sail On" and "Still." "Lady" went straight to the top and ended up as one of Rogers' biggest hits. "Share Your Love" (Liberty LOO-1108) is the natural consequence of that success: Richie produced the album, contributed four songs and solicited the help of friends like Michael Jackson and Gladys Knight and the Pips. If all this suggests Rogers has tightened up, forget it.
The album opens with "Blaze of Glory," a bit of good-time country pop, Oak Ridge Boys-sytel, where the chorus is all important and therefore the only catchy part of the tune. The album hits its stride on the next cut, "I Don't Need You," which, like "Lady" and "She Believes in Me," follows the predictable pattern of a soft-sung verse followed by a breakout chorus, a seesaw of emotions built around a pretty and soft-spun melody. It resolves, as so many songs seem to, with an irritating cliche: "We don't need each other baby . . . or do we?"
"Makes Me Wonder If I Ever Said Goodbye" is a Mickey Newberry song that really belongs in George Jones country, while "Grey Beard" is the new album's obligatory moral story-song. "Through the Years" is another slow, pretty ballad, the kind of song Rogers excels at despite his limited range and occasionally awkward phrasing. Emotionally and musically, it seems a sequel to "Lady" set 10 years down the road, an earthy praise song. Knight and the Pips, mixed down to a faint echo, are pretty much wasted on "Share Your Love With Me," a song filled with platitudes like "There's no one blinder than one who just can't see."
None of Richie's songs this time around are as strong as "Lady." "The Good Life" and "Without You in My Life" both suggest contemporary gospel melodies reworked as love ballads, and Rogers doesn't sound entirely comfortable with the phrasing or the dynamivs. He does better on "Goin' Back to Alabama," an up-tempo tale of resurrection of the spirit. However, one suspects Rogers could have done wondes with the two new Richie tunes ("Oh No," "Lucy") on the new Commodores album, "In the Pocket" (Motown M8-955M1).
Most of "Pocket" is built around the funky grooves long associated with the Commodores, who took the tightly disciplined harmonies of '60s Motown and braced them with an ear for pop melody and an eye to the dance floor. While the sound on the new album is impeccable, it also seems curiously sterile, with the exception of the popping bass line and churning funk bottom of "Keep On Taking Me Higher." Though the band has achieved a remarkably wide appeal, they're not going to keep it with songs like "This Love," which sounds like a wimpy Al Stewart pop ballad, or "Been Loving You," which can't decide whether it wants to be dirty or funky. Even their new single, "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" seems more an echo than an advance.
Richie's two originals (out of eight cuts) stand out, a bit like sore thumbs. Just as Rogers has tried to tighten up, Richie seems to have whitened up, a curious double crossover. ywith "On No" it's hard not to imagine Rogers singing its lines of agony and estasy surrounded by lush piano and string flurishes. "Lucy" is even more disconcerting because Richie sounds just like Bob Seger doing one of his ballads, complete with a semi-quavering vocal and cyclical song structure. Both songs will probably get a lot of easy listening and beautiful music airplay.
As far as Richie's duet with Ross on "Endless Love" (Motown M1519F) it fits the movie like a girl, especially if the girl is Brooks Shields. In fact, Richie seems to have tried to write the song's lyrics with a 15-year-old's imagination. Which is why we'll probably hear it a lot for the rest of the summer -- "A Pretty Girl" suggests "it will haunt you night and day."