THE COVER of Debbie Harry's "KooKoo" (Chrysalis CHR1347) is the best thing about the debut solo album by the lead singer of Blondie; it also suggests that Harry has skewered herself in abandoning the context of a band that wittily explored '60s pop styles and '70s pop possibilities; instead, she has opted for the elegant '80s pop-funksterism of producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. The result is a dismal album that will do little to advance any of the participants' careers or reputations.
There's a subtle racism in the production end of the music business that says it's all right for black acts to have white producers, but resists the idea of white acts having black producers. As the recent Lionel Richie-Kenny Rogers collaborations have shown, the problem is minimalized when both parties share a similar esthetic approach. But Harry and the Chics have nothing in common beyond their gold records. There has been little in Harry's past work to hint at any infatuation with black music styles, while Chic's production work with Diana Ross, Sisters Sledge and others has been distinctly black rather than crossover oriented. Bringing these two virtually opposite parties together in the studio is a little like pouring a few drops of coffee in a glass of milk -- the results are embarrassing and lacking in flavor. Harry may be the world's most famous ex-blond, but her roots are definitely not black.
Blondie's last album, "AutoAmerican," suffered from a surfeit of styles; "KooKoo" compunds the situation with a paucity of good songs. Each team (Harry working with partner Chris Stein) contributed four songs; two songs were total collaborations. The problem is that each pair seemed intent on conforming to the other's style, a bit of bleaching and dyeing that knocked everyone down a notch. Instead of a smooth give and take, or even a rough-edged synthesis, each pair seemed willing to fold rather than meld into a powerful hand.
What's left? Some smooth but passionless playing from the Chic side and some overly serious, pretentious vocalizing. Harry never was blessed with a facile instrument, but her unschooled voice was well-suited to Blondie's gutsy, beat-heavy pop. She also used to display a puckish humor and sense of style that compensated for a basic lack of skill. On "KooKoo," though, Harry's voice -- at once strident and lifeless -- dominates the mix.
The successful elements of "AutoAmerican" are repeated here, with "Inner City Spillover" an overly tight reggae follow-up to "The Tide Is High." "Rapture" is evoked several times without ever approaching the innocent enthusiasm that Harry displayed on her initial venture into the pseudo-rap-ids. "Backfired" is slick enough, but "The Jam Was Moving" and "Military Rap" are both pedestrian assembly line funk (though the latter has a jerky intensity that benefits from clever production ideas and jaunty lyrics). Unfortunately, Harry is not a great rapper; words fall out of her mouth stiffly, her phrasing is forced, her diction strained by her plastic soul.
"Jump Jump" is a so-so funk offering that points up Harry's major failing: in a music that demands a certain passion and vitality, she is sexless and washed out. On the ballad, "Now I Know You Know," those same qualities render the song flat. "Under Arrest" hints at Europop and makes one wish Harry had entrusted an album's worth of energy to Giorgio Moroder, who guided her so beautifully through "Heart of Glass" and "Call Me."
Although some of the songs on "KooKoo" may pop a little more coming over the airwaves or on special disco mixes, only "Chrome" and "Oasis" hold up to repeated listenings, and even they are attractive more for their potential than for their achievement. "Chrome," with its dark and dreamy undercurrents, has a Blondie-ish gloss to it while "Oasis" has a sensuous Eastern feel that seperates it from the ostensible dance-rock of the rest of the album.
"KooKoo" won't knock Debbie Harry off the tracks, but it's bound to slow her down some. If she were looking to put some distance between herself and Blondie (and Blondie's fans), she couldn't have picked a better vehicle. "KooKoo" is barely interesting, and then mostly as a catalogue of misguided ego and unguided art; it deserves the little success it will probably earn.