Washington's own singer-songwriter Gil Scott-Heron got a big break when he was invited to open for Stevie Wonder on the latter's national tour last year. Wonder was attracted to Scott-Heron's appealing assets: rhythmic rap vocals, jazz backgrounds and an uncompromising political conscience. Nonetheless, Scott-Heron's shows on that tour were undermined by a lack of range in his voice, a lack of melody in his music and a lack of subtlety in his lyrics.
Scott-Heron's newest album, "Reflections" (Arista, AL 9566), contains both these strengths and weaknesses. It stands out from his previous work because the singer now has the best backing band of his career. Keyboardist Glen Turner and a strong horn section nicely flesh out the music merely implied by Scott-Heron's limited voice.
This time out, Scott-Heron turns his sharp pen on Reaganomics, the gun lobby and the music business. As always, he makes commendable points, but with the blunt, sweeping overstatement of an editorial writer.
"Justice is coming on the winds of the storm," he sings. "We resist in the present for those yet unborn."
These are admirable sentiments, but do they qualify as insight?
In addition to three songs and three of his music-backed poems, Scott-Heron sings two models for his own style: Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands" and Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues." Both songs are spruced up by fine horn arrangements, but with his narrow range, Scott-Heron is doomed to fall short of the originals. His poem, "The Siege of New Orleans," is stuck inside "Inner City Blues," but it only spells out what Gaye so neatly implied.
"Is That Jazz?" has a clever chorus that argues that feelings are more important than labels in music. Instead of exploring that idea, however, the verses are merely a litany of famous jazz names. Despite a gorgeous Vernon James soprano sax solo, Scott-Heron's spoken poem for "Morning Thought" sounds like high school literary magazine material.
By contrast, the long rap poem, "B Movie," is redeemed by Scott-Heron's sharp wit. Filled with wicked puns, heated hyperbole and genuine anger, the jazz-backed monologue comes off like a Richard Pryor comedy routine. On "Gun," Scott-Heron comes down from his editorial loftiness to confront gun control from the street-level perspective of a scared ghetto father.
"Storm Music" is the album's most musical number. Scott-Heron's half-spoken, half-sung vocals are effectively counterbalanced by Glen Turner's bluesy harmonica, Carl Cornwell's tenor sax and the Waters' backing vocals.
Scott-Heron should strive more often for the musical balance of "Storm Music" and the lyrical detail of "Gun." Those two songs capture the strengths that attracted Wonder and so many others to the Washington singer-songwriter.
Another Washington soul act, Peaches & Herb, made a surprising comeback two years ago by plugging into the disco boom for two giant hits: "Shake Your Groove Thing" and the ballad, "Reunited." Their new album, "Sayin' Something" (Polydor, PD-1-6332), shows the singing duo and their songwriting team of Keni St. Lewis and Freddie Perren running out of steam.
After you've had a couple of disco hits, there's not much room for variation within that constricted genre. Peaches & Herb had their disco hits two years ago, yet they're still relying on disco formulas when nearly everyone else in pop music has learned better. The up-tempo dance songs, like the first single, "Freeway," sound overly mechanical. On ballads like "Bluer Than Blue," the two singers overdramatize certain lines by stretching out syllables till one loses interest.