One has been in the limelight for almost 20 years; the other has been inching toward that limelight for more than a decade. Neither has a stupendous natural instrument; their voices are comfortably familiar, but forever victim to producers' whims and limitations. Both are singles artists who tend to be overshadowed by their albums' ambitions. They are Diana Ross and Kim Carnes.
The raspy charms of Kim Carnes may have seemed a discovery on last year's "Betty Davis Eyes," but she's a pop war veteran. Like Kenny Rogers, with whom she sang a duet on "Don't Fall in Love With a Stranger," Carnes started as a country-pop singer trying to overcome bland and unimaginative production that seldom took advantage of either the raucous edge or the sensual patina of her voice. However, last year's "Mistaken Identity" brilliantly bridged Europop and New Wave through producer Val Garay's absorption and balancing of each style's most interesting production aspects, notably the quirky synthesizer pulses, echoing drum machines and witty but dispassionate lyrics. The album also featured the first consistently interesting song grouping of Carnes' career, and she rode it to the top of the charts.
With Garay again at the helm, "Voyeur" (EMI America So-17078) follows up the most commercial aspects of "Mistaken Identity" without investing the needed energy in song selection or altering the production formula so that it doesn't seem . . . well, formulaic. And while nothing sounds exactly like a "Betty Davis" copy, there's a redundant sense of erotic isolation, emotional narcissism and calculated cynicism that drags down the material. The title cut is the album's most alluring production, propulsive in a manner reminiscent of ABBA, but its central theme of locked-in inhibitions and love (or lovelessness) in the fast lane gets tiresome with each variation (the foreboding "Undertow," the plodding "Arrangement"). "Take It On the Chin," a clipped promise of comeuppance on a cheating partner, concludes the pattern with a disquieting mix of terse little-girl delivery and tense big-girl lyrics ("I can use the phone without your dime").
Flitting between first- and third-person narratives in a gravelly voice that seems emotionally bent but never broken, Carnes casts herself as the cool voyeur straddling the thin line between a swinger's debilitating night life and an artist's pensive emotions; the pose is vulnerable, but the lyrics (mostly by Carnes, with several collaborators) are too often insufferable, particularly when they slide from being sung to being spoken. On several steamy rockers, the rough-hewn Carnes makes an increasingly stronger case for herself as the distaff Rod Stewart: "Thrill of the Grill" and "Say You Don't Know Me" (with its bonded chorus) have the petulant energy and rhythmic insistence of Stewart's best work, which is fine if that proposition seems appealing (in fact, it's quite limiting).
The album's most interesting songs are "Looker" (theme song from the underrated film) and the moving "Breaking Away From Sanity," its disturbing lyric couched in a simple, haunting piano figure and anchored in a poignant children's chorus. The latter song's raspy emotional edge confirms that Carnes can overcome the limitations of her voice with sensitive, understated production. On most of "Voyeur," though, she's confronted with crisp but bloodless rhythm tracks, too-thick layers of synthesized electro-pop textures that overwhelm rather than complement, and lyrics that are coy and obtuse where they should be tough and direct. "Voyeur" is not a follow-up as much as it is a consequence of "Mistaken Identity."
There's no mistaking who Diana Ross is: Her highly stylized Andy Warhol portrait stares out from the front and back covers of "Silk Electric" (RCA AFL-1-4384) and twice more from the inside (yes, there is an ever-so-slight variation, like Steve Reich's music). Unfortunately, there's only one great cut out of 10 (or nine, though the minute-long orchestral sigh of "Turn Me Over" -- that's also the complete original Ross lyric -- is inexcusably listed as a complete song).
That one good song, of course, is the quirky "Muscles," written and produced by Michael Jackson. It is one of the most distinctive, outrageous songs to make it onto radio this year. It's in the grand tradition of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" and Ross' own "Work That Body." This time around, she's got flex on her mind, not caring "if he's young or old" as long as he's got muscles "all over his body from his head down to his toes . . . I need what the eyes can see," Ross sighs, halfway between singing and squealing.
Jackson's production, combining a wha-wha chorus, stringent drum crashes and Ross' breathy delivery, is the only memorable effort on a disjointed and unfocused album, which features eight arrangers and 13 writers. Among the clinkers: "So Close," a virtual parody of the classic girl group sound, in which Ross pretends she's never heard of the Supremes; the maudlin, grandiose "In Your Arms" and "Still In Love," both soppy, Gilbert Becaud-ish ballads that seem to be competing for a spot as a Randall Kleiser soundtrack theme; and the worst offender, "Fool For Your Love," in which Ross tries to prove she can out-heavy-metal Pat Benatar. Unsuccessfully.
Side Two is a bust, a mishmash of four silly love songs and one silly self-love song, the McKuen-esque "I Am Me" ("Right or wrong I will stand up like a tree/Happy or sad, good or bad, I Am Me") creaking over a psuedo-reggae beat.