Disco may be dead but the metronomic tedium it inspired isn't. These days it's a rare soul album that doesn't exhaust the most basic of funk-rap rhythms: hand claps on alternate beats. Even the most talented musicians have trouble standing out against this thudding backdrop, yet a number of Washington-based acts are trying just the same.
The Reddings are relatively successful at it. The dance groove on "Steamin' Hot" (CBS FZ37947) is sufficiently deep, thanks in part to Dexter Redding's appealing bass lines and to the shifting vocal textures that first appear on "I Know You Got Another." The album's showpiece, however, isn't a dance tune; it's Dexter Redding's uncompromising and unadorned version of "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." In his own quiet and convincing fashion, Dexter pays tribute to his father, the late Otis Redding, and manages to make this classic tune sound fresh and contemporary.
In fact, the Reddings might do well to record more of their father's work. Though energetic, many songs on "Steamin' Hot" are derivative -- one of the best, "You Bring Me Joy," for instance, constantly recalls Carole King's "Natural Woman." And the arrangements, with the accent on rhythmic redundancy, hold little attraction off the dance floor. With vocalists as good as Dexter Redding and Mark Locket, the Reddings seem to be shortchanging themselves much of the time on "Steaming Hot."
Stacy Lattisaw pursues the same groove on "Sneakin' Out" (Cotillion 90002-1). At 15, Lattisaw is at that awkward age where nothing seems to fit just right. Some songs would carry more weight coming from an older, or at least more experienced, vocalist; other songs might not seem so cute and calculated coming from someone younger.
True, Lattisaw's range, power and controlled vibrato are especially impressive on this album, and with every recording, producer Narada Michael Walden has succeeded in making her a more composed, self-assured vocalist -- qualities she has yet to project on stage. Even so, Lattisaw can sound a tad precocious at times.
On "I Could Love You So Divine," for example, she waxes nostalgic about the time "we were skipping through the leaves like a couple of kids," and there are plenty of other moments when lyrics ring false and the singer seems miscast. If these romantic ballads tend to add years to Lattisaw's age, some of the dance numbers do just the opposite. The most obvious example is "Attack of the Name Game," in which yet another generation is introduced to Shirley Hill's old tongue twister; in this updated rap version, Martian voices and space guitars dominate. Elsewhere, Walden's reliance on synthesizers and familiar pop-funk rhythms causes much of "Sneakin' Out" to sound the same. Chances are, this album will be viewed years from now as but another modest step in the development of a truly fine pop vocalist.
Like the Reddings and Lattisaw, Khemistry -- a trio of vocalists Marie Council, Shirl Hayes and Kimus Knight -- sets its sights on the dance floor, and songs like "Sucker for the Boogie" speak for themselves. Every now and then, though, Knight's voice, a strong, sensuous baritone, cuts across the dance rhythms and catches your ear. He's an excellent balladeer, as he proves on "There's No Me Without You." He may need nothing other than a slightly more imaginative setting to really make his mark. "Khemistry," (CBS-FC38215) makes for polished, sometimes sassy soul music that, despite obvious effort and musicianship, never quite rises above the ordinary.
Far more interesting is Glenn Edward Thomas' "Take Love" (EMI ST 12230) -- if only because the album doesn't constantly adhere to rhythmic fashions. Perhaps producer Don Cornelius had his fill of hand-clap percussion while hosting "Soul Train." Whatever the reason, the arrangements Thomas and Cornelius have devised breathe easily, complementing Thomas' subdued romanticism. Occasionally, Thomas' vocals reflect a debt to Stevie Wonder on uptempo tunes like "Poochie," where the comparison seems unavoidable, and on ballads like "Shippin' Out," where the influence is less pronounced. Thomas' hushed crooning, however, is distinctive enough to hold its own rewards, especially on the softly seductive "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" (not the Paul Anka hit) and the lush "She's Goose Down." Come to think of it, "goose down soft" isn't a bad way to describe Thomas' warm and, given the current competition, refreshing soul music.