When the Jackson 5 left Motown Records and became the Jacksons on Epic Records, Jermaine -- who had married the daughter of Motown's founder -- stayed behind and launched a solo career. While the other Jacksons have enjoyed mammoth commercial success as disco artists, Jermaine Jackson has created the family's most substantial music and emerged as the obvious heir to the progressive soul tradition established at Motown by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Jackson's new album, "Let Me Tickle Your Fancy" (Motown 6017ML), shows that he has thoroughly digested the influence of Wonder and Gaye to create his most versatile and accomplished album yet.
Jackson draws on his past collaborations with Wonder to keep his melodies and textures constantly changing, a restless musical movement that counterbalances the steady dance groove to satisfy both the head and the hips. His vocals have acquired the brooding sensuality of Marvin Gaye's. To enhance this effect, the album often wraps Jackson's voice in the heavy echo and greatly separated mix that gave Gaye's best records the illusion of expansive space. Co-produced by Jackson and his father-in-law, Berry Gordy, "Let Me Tickle Your Fancy" is Jackson's most consistent album yet. All 10 tracks are standouts; none is the weak filler that marred previous efforts.
Despite the very preppy cover photos, the music inside is quite funky, with Jackson's own rhythm arrangements emphasizing a heavy syncopation that pushes the offbeat right up against the accent beat. Paul Jackson does much of the pushing with clipped, compressed guitar chords; once this mid-tempo erotic grind is established, Jermaine Jackson will slip a moaning sigh into his vocal delivery. The imaginative horn arrangements reinforce this with moaning tenor saxophones echoing the vocal phrases.
The album's title track, already a hit single, is built around a compelling funk rhythm, brightly slapping handclaps offset by Paul Jackson's bluesy guitar figure. Jackson sings the verses with a friendly come-on that pulls back for a surprising new wave detachment on the chorus. Singing backup on the chorus are Devo's Pud and Spud (Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale). Stevie Wonder's ex-wife, Syreeta Wright, joins Jackson for a nicely understated vocal duet on the lovely romantic ballad "You Belong to Me."
Horn charts reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire chase the melody on fast and fun funk tunes like "Very Special Part," "Uh Uh, I Didn't Do It," "Running" and "This Time." On these songs, Jackson establishes the melody with his satiny romantic voice. Once the song is set up, though, he shifts into a grizzly growl and shouts instinctively over the groove. With the rhythm section holding steady, the horns going one way and the lead vocal going another, these songs climax in an intoxicating whirl of activity.
While the other nine cuts are romantic bouquets, "There's a Better Way" protests America's racist economy. Jackson doesn't shout or preach; in a low-key voice he makes this troubling assertion: "You don't know how it feels to be without . . . We know there's a better way." The song is also the album's most ambitious number musically: a tricky funk shuffle rhythm figure is pulled off by congo rolls and a bass solo and then augmented by synthesized steel drums and harpsichords. The song ends dizzyingly with three different vocal parts weaving in and out.
Jermaine Jackson's brothers Randy and Tito make guest appearances on the album, and a Jackson 5 reunion is tentatively scheduled for next year. If it happens, Jermaine Jackson's ambitious accomplishments will set high artistic standards for his brothers to meet.
During Motown's decline in the early '70s, the Four Tops also left the company. After many lean years they made a surprising comeback on last year's delightful "Tonight!," proving that the good voices only needed good songs and solid support to succeed. Producer David Wolfert returns this year with basically the same team of songwriters and musicians on the Four Tops' follow-up album, "One More Mountain" (Casablanca NBLP7266). The results are every bit as likable as last year's comeback, though the songs aren't quite as good.
Marc Blatte and Larry Gottlieb, who wrote last year's hit single, "When She Was My Girl," have penned another one, "Sad Hearts." Levi Stubbs' grainy baritone breaks through the sweet, bouncy track to make the sadness convincing, while his three colleagues reach back for pre-Motown doo-wop harmonies to reinforce the romantic swoon. The other Blatte and Gottlieb song, "Givin' It Up," is the record's second best tune, an uptempo shouter in the style of the quartet's classic Motown hits. The band's self-written "Nobody's Gonna Love You Like I Do" is a refreshing gospel-influenced workout bursting with uninhibited shouting, deep bass vocals, snappy snare drumming and loose sax blowing.
Unfortunately, the six remaining songs are far weaker. The two by producer Wolfert and soul veteran Sandy Linzer drift off into sentimentality, while the others fail to establish a memorable melody or dancebeat despite good singing. The Four Tops would have been smarter to include their spring single, "Back to School Again," far and away the best thing on the "Grease 2" soundtrack (RSO RS-1-3803). Produced by songwriter Louis St. Louis, the movie song is convincing straight-ahead rock with Stubbs and the fellows shouting at full throttle to stay ahead of the pounding backbeat and buzzing guitar solos.