Philip Bailey's siren tenor has long been a favorite instrument of pop producers. Bailey has never displayed any style or originality of his own, but his voice has been a pliable and effective tool in the hands of others. As a result, his records have only been as good as their songwriting and production.
During his many years as colead singer for Earth, Wind & Fire, Bailey benefited from Maurice White's richly harmonic writing and big-band-funk arrangements. Both the commercial success and the artistic failure of Bailey's first two solo albums can be attributed to their vastly overrated producers: George Duke and Phil Collins.
The modest success of Bailey's new solo album, "Inside Out" (Columbia, FC 40209), can be credited to his new producer, Nile Rodgers, perhaps the best rhythm arranger in pop music today. This former leader of Chic creates dance rhythms with more variety and internal movement than most melodies. Most dance numbers are content to go "thump-thump-thump," but Rodgers' arrangements are more likely to go "thumpity-bip-bop-boom."
On Bailey's new album, Rodgers duplicates the syncopated funk and layered harmonies of vintage Earth, Wind & Fire. Bailey's instantly recognizable voice, which glides from high tenor into falsetto without shifting, is an essential part of that sound.
The biggest weakness of "Inside Out" is the songwriting. Half of the record's 10 songs are credited to three, four or six writers, and this committee approach lends a certain facelessness to the material. Often it's only Rodgers' rhythm arrangements and Bailey's stratospheric vocals that salvage the songs.
The album's first single is "State of the Heart" by the System's Mic Murphy and Paul Pesco. The arrangement is full of Rodgers' old Chic tricks: eighth-note bass figures, staccato strings and high-speed, synthesized marimbas. These set up Bailey's wonderful yodeling falsetto on the tag.
Even better is Bobby Nunn's "Welcome to the Club," which features a complex funk bottom flawlessly executed by Sting's jazz-rock rhythm section, Omar Hakim and Daryl Jones.
Nunn is just one of several gifted rock-funk singer-songwriters who deserve the kind of budget and promotion that Bailey has received. London's Junior is another. His third album, "Acquired Taste," (Mercury, 828 001-1 M-1), once again proves him one of the most inspired craftsmen in pop.
Though this record isn't the rare gem that Junior's overlooked 1983 "Inside Lookin' Out" was, it is consistently rewarding pop-soul. As before, Junior aligns his bright, bouncy melody accents and his techno-funk dance beats so they strike simultaneously and reinforce each other. His light, seductive voice then breezes through with an easygoing charm.
Junior shares Boy George's dance-pop instincts, and two Culture Club producers each take a stab at giving him the hit single he needs. Arif Mardin buries Junior's "Somebody" under a cluttered, formulaic pop-funk arrangement. But Steve Levine transforms Junior's "Together" into the best Culture Club song since 1983's "Miss Me Blind."
Levine uses a nicely understated arrangement that allows a light funk figure to percolate beneath the ballad harmonies. Junior purrs the romantic melody just like Stevie Wonder. Wonder gives the seal of approval by playing drums throughout the album.
Half of the record's eight songs are produced by Junior's new keyboardist, Nigel Martinez, who muscles up the singer's pop-soul with some assertive rock guitar. Junior's agile voice makes the sharp cuts and turns on the agitated beat without losing his characteristic tunefulness.
However, the two best songs are those Junior produced himself. "Not Tonight" boasts a hypnotic electric percussion groove that Junior glides through with seductive ease. "Oh Louise" boasts the album's most sophisticated melody, and Junior spins the midtempo love song into radiant harmonies.
The latest entry in this pop-funk vein is Johnny Kemp, who is more a voice at the disposal of his producers, as Bailey is, than a creative artist in his own right, as Junior is. The debut album, "Johnny Kemp" (Columbia, BFC 40192), was made with the New Music Group that pop-soul star Kashif has assembled in the New York City area.
Kashif cowrote two tunes, but he supervised the songwriting and production efforts of such prote'ge's as Jeff Smith, Shelley Scruggs and Brian Morgan. If the intent was to re-create the Motown assembly line of hits, they have thus far only re-created the assembly line.
All the songs on Kemp's album boast an impeccable professionalism with attractive melodies, danceable rhythms and the latest in studio technology. Unfortunately, there's nothing about any of the tunes to distinguish them from the dozens of songs released each month with the exact same characteristics.
The melodies are never quite strong enough to stand out; the rhythms are all familiar from the radio; and Kemp's voice, though nice enough, has no more personality than a veteran background singer's. Kashif has grown so calculating about the pop music business that he seems to have lost all his inspiration.