In theory, blue-eyed soul stands as the powerful equalizer between rock and R & B. After all, not only does it boast the rhymthic power and emotional expression of R & B, but it channels these virtues through the brash physicality and tuneful accessibility of rock. Unfortunately, blue-eyed soul in reality is not quite so neat a success, for despite the promise of the genre, the music itself rarely adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Take, as an example, the Power Station, and their debut "33-1/3" (Capitol SJ 12380). This quartet ought to be the ultimate funk/rock fusion band. Formed by two members of the new wave dance group Duran Duran, bassist John Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor, the group is fronted by singer Robert Palmer, the premier British soul man of the mid-'70s, and grounded by drummer Tony Thompson, who, along with producer Bernard Edwards, used to play in the funk/disco band Chic. On personnel alone, the Power Station ought to combine the best of both British and American dance styles, delivering a music that is smooth, stylish and propulsive.
Why, then, does it end up so stiff, strained and prefabricated?
Because all this collaboration amounts to is a slathering of mannerisms as each player plies his trade in blissful disregard of the others. Palmer summons his whole vocabulary of grunts, growls, swallowed syllables and choked-out exclamations as he slithers through the songs, but never actually connects with the groove even as he feigns writhing in its heat. Not that he ignores the beat, mind you -- he couldn't possibly, as Thompson approaches his role with all the subtlety of the Incredible Hulk, pounding out the backbeat with such brutal authority that he virtually dominates the album.
Of course, it doesn't help that the Taylors play as if their role was to accompany the drumming. The bass is functional and anonymous, neither getting in the way nor furthering the beat, and the guitar follows suit except for brief bursts of feedback-fired solos. In the end, the Taylors sound almost like guests on their own album.
Because the players never connect with one another, much of the music offered by the Power Station at best merely crackles like static electricity. "Some Like It Hot," the first single off the album, is engaging enough, thanks to a brittle, jabbing horn arrangement and the odd appeal of Palmer's oxymoronic vocals, but that's more a matter of being drawn in by the aural dazzle than being convinced by the music. "Murderous," immediately following, shows how quickly the "Some Like It Hot" formula can sour, as the hyperkinetic horns and handfisted drumming push the song beyond parity. But that sort of rhythmic overkill is all too common here, from the blunt overstatement of Andy Taylor's guitar on "Harvest for the World" to the stuttering tape edits that open "Bang a Gong (Get It On)."
Treating a song, or for that matter, a singer, as the raw material for a producer's grand musical vision is unfortunately common these days. Certainly, that's the decisive factor in the general failure of "The Secret of Association" (Columbia BFC 39957), Paul Young's second album.
Like Robert Palmer, Young is another raw-voiced English soul singer, but where Palmer's work never quite caught the emotional power of American soul, Young's supple phrasing and expressive upper register have brought him tantalizingly close to the cool passion of Marvin Gaye. Young's debut, "No Parlez," exploited that expertly, but this time around the singer founders, trapped both by producer Laurie Latham's over-elaborate arrangements and his own need to show off.
His talent does see him through at times. "Every Time You Go Away" is marvelously straightforward, even if it fails to throw the sparks the Hall & Oates original did, and "Soldiers Things," a bit of maudlin balladry that would seem to invite overindulgence, never quite does, and ends up the album's high point. These are the exceptions, though. Far more common are the likes of "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down," which nearly collapses under the weight of Latham's tricked-up arrangement, and "Everything Must Change," with its sputtering falsetto fireworks.
Falsetto is a favorite refuge for would-be white soul singers. Just listen to "Vox Humana" (Columbia FC 39174), the latest release from Kenny Loggins. Loggins has never boasted one of rock's most authoritative voices, it being too pinched for real power and too breathy to convincingly convey warmth. Why, then, he should emulate the squirrelly high notes of Robin Gibb is anyone's guess, and whether resorted to in the name of bright pop like "At Last" or in the imitation Earth, Wind & Fire funk of "I'll Be There," Loggins' upper-register gymnastics are a persistent annoyance.
A shame, too, because the writing is uniformly catchy, drawing upon Loggins' years of pop craft and appropriating the dance beat momentum of his last hit, "Footloose." In addition to "At Last," "Let There Be Love," the title song and "Loraine," all stand up to repeated listenings -- provided you don't let Loggins affectations bother you.