After his surprising comeback triumph with 1994's "The Icon Is Love," Barry White has returned with the optimistically titled "Staying Power." The good news is that the sound -- the sonorous baritone, the lush strings, the insistent beat -- that made White one of the most enjoyable acts of '70s disco is intact. The bad news is that the songs are weak. Each of White's disco hits had a juicy nugget of pop melody at the core of the ornate productions, and that's what's missing from the new album.
White's deep, rumbling voice and soaring strings are only effective if they start with a catchy hook, but the new crop of songs drift atop a sea of arrangement tricks without ever quite docking at a memorable chorus. The album's title track and first single is a double entendre without much wit or urgency. Another original, "The Longer We Make Love," is included twice -- once as a duet with Chaka Khan and once as a duet with Lisa Stansfield -- but neither guest can compensate for the lack of melodic material. Puff Daddy remixed the version of Sly Stone's "Thank You," but the slo-mo tempo still drags. Only the remake of War's "Low Rider" has the bounce and charisma of White's best work.
Maurice White is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Earth, Wind & Fire, the group he founded in Chicago in 1969, by personally overseeing an ambitious reissue of the band's Columbia catalogue. The first four titles in the series include the group's landmark studio albums, 1975's "That's the Way of the World" and 1977's "All 'N All;" the band's only live album, 1975's "Gratitude;" and its most potent collection of singles, "The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1." Each album has been remastered and has been re-released with newly commissioned liner notes and previously unreleased bonus tracks-demos, alternate takes, live performances and remixes.
Because George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic troupe provide a much more colorful story, it's easy to overlook the contributions of White and his ensemble to the '70s funk revolution. But these four reissues remind us that Earth, Wind & Fire was the one act that could combine pop and funk without diluting either ingredient. White and his comrades wrote great chorus melodies and the group had two great pop singers -- Philip Bailey and White himself -- to sing them. But the band also blended R&B, Latin and jazz rhythms into a very funky groove, pumped up by some of the most inventive horn charts of the decade. To hear songs such as "Shining Star," "Getaway" and "September" is to remember how seamlessly this band once put the hook and the beat together.
Appearing Sunday at the MCI Center. To hear a free Sound Bite from Barry White, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8121. For a Sound Bite from Earth, Wind and Fire, press 8122. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)