Whatever happened to Earth, Wind & Fire? This Chicago nonet sold almost 20 million records between 1975 and 1981 and created a dense but polished pop-funk sound that still dominates West Coast soul records. Nonetheless, the group itself hasn't had a big hit since 1981's "Let's Groove" and hasn't made a really good album since 1979's "I Am." The band began to make records like a corporation: Go after short profits with the same formulas. The listeners eventually caught on, and the sales dipped.
Maurice White, the founder and leader of the group, has decided to recapture the old magic (and the old sales) by dismantling the institution and making his first solo album: "Maurice White" (C-FC 39883). The result is a pretty good Earth, Wind & Fire record -- not as good as the mid-'70s classics but much stronger than the group's later efforts.
Once again, White matches up buoyant melodies and captivating dance grooves. Once again, his production keeps rhythms, tone color and dozens of voices swirling at once without ever obstructing the tune or the beat. At the same time, his old weaknesses are just as obvious: His lyrics are as banal and simple-minded as ever, and he polishes all the personal revelations and surprises right out of the record.
The album's first single is a remake of Ben E. King's 1961 hit "Stand by Me," and it illustrates why White enjoys more respect as a producer than as a singer. White has a strong, pleasing tenor with an impressive range, but he never gets close to the impassioned pleading of King's original.
What he lacks in emotional intensity, however, he makes up for in inventive arranging -- he throws in every trick he can think of. As the song gradually builds, he adds a clipped rhythm guitar lick, a squealing synth figure, crashing electric percussion, a syncopated counterrhythm and echoing whispers. It all climaxes in a wonderful tag with all the different ingredients bouncing around in dizzying choreography as White sings a perfect counterpoint melody.
The second single is likely to be "Switch On Your Radio," a powerhouse dance number that sounds like vintage EW&F with a battery of synths replacing the old horn section. Robbie Buchanan's synths and Brian Fairweather's drum programming manage to pack a lot of syncopated beats into each bar but with a punchy focus that sends White's voice flying forward. Buchanan (Laura Branigan), Fairweather (Scotland's Q'Feel) and Martin Page (Q'Feel, too) coproduced the album with White, and they enabled him to transfer his old EW&F ideas to the new technology. He has always relied on precision arrangements, and the drum and synth programs allow him to be more precise than ever. Even the three ballads owe their enveloping lushness to layered synths.
Unfortunately, there still aren't any good computer programs for writing lyrics. White's lyrics are so vague and Pollyanna-ish that they make even Stevie Wonder seem like James Baldwin by comparison.
White's main rival in the funk world of the '70s was George Clinton, the founder and leader of Parliament and Funkadelic. He too has come out of a slump with a new solo career, and has now returned to outside production projects. He is much admired in rock's new wave and punk circles; Thomas Dolby worked on Clinton's last solo album, and Clinton has now produced the L.A. rap punk quartet, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who perform at the 9:30 club Nov. 6.
Clinton gives a new, second album, "Freaky Styley" (EMI ST-17169), a convincing funk bottom. The album's weakness is the young band's inability to put interesting melodies or solos on top of that exciting bottom.
The band is a strong enough rhythm unit to do justice to the Meter's "Hollywood (Africa)," and the Peppers' lyrics boast witty word play about a "Jungle Man" singer who erupts with "thelonious thunder" and a "black-eyed blond, the mystic heat of the Bourbon Street dream." Unfortunately, Anthony Kiedis is not an especially interesting singer: He has a muddied tone, a limited range and little personality other than borrowed mannerisms.
A much better album is "The Federation of Tackheads" (Capitol ST-12392), the debut effort by Jimmy G. & the Tackheads. This is yet another name applied to Clinton's standing army of musicians and singers. The nominal leader is the unheralded (and otherwise unidentified) Jimmy G., who proves a strong singer and bassist. But the real forces behind this project are Clinton and Steve Washington, the multi-instrumental whiz formerly of Ohio's funk heroes, Slave.
Tackheads are the underemployed young men who hang out on the corners and in the playgrounds of every inner city, and this album is aimed at them. It employs the deep-funk rhythm of such funkadelic hits as "One Nation Under a Groove" and "(Not Just) Knee Deep," hydraulic-pumped up by Washington's industrial-strength rhythms. The tunes are pretty simple love songs, but they boast some of the most attractive melodies Clinton has ever handled. "All or Nothin' " has a slow, mesmerizing rhythm under a gorgeous lover's plea, and Dwayne McKnight gives it one of the most lyrical guitar solos on any record this year. Washington has a cast of thousands convulsing on the sing-along lover's lament of "You Always Break My Heart," and Jimmy G. gives the blunt accusation of "Lies" a dance floor whomp that won't be denied. This is easily the most underrated rhythm and blues record of the year.