"DONNA Summer" (Geffen, GHS 2005), the singer's "D first album in two years, completes her break with her disco past. It is her first record without disco producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Summer ranges instead across a wide spectrum of material: from a hot new rocker by Bruce Springsteen to a venerable jazz standard by Billy Strayhorn; from a bouncy dance tune by producer Quincy Jones to a ponderous synthesizer cantata by Vangelis.
Summer's big, sensual voice acquits itself in every genre but is bound by none. Much like Linda Ronstadt, Summer has become an American sweetheart, a mainstream pop singer who can make good songs attractive and accessible to a mass audience. Just as Ronstadt's country background colors her pop songs with a plaintive quiver, so does Summer's disco background color her songs with a groaning throb.
The first single is "Love Is in Control" by Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson's songwriter, Rod Temperton. In the verses, Summer sizes up a potential lover with simmering impatience over a pulsating synthesizer. On the choruses, she blasts him with Cupid's smoking pistol, and her voice leaps gleefully over a squealing chorus and punchy horns. On the tag, the song expands into a hot summer night block party; Summer shouts with abandon as voices, horns and synthesizers spin off in every direction.
The rest of side one is pretty dreary. "Mystery of Love" has been polished so hard there's nothing left; "The Woman in Me" has too little melody to support its ghastly echo and the leaden playing by Toto. "State of Independence" by Jon Anderson and "Chariots of Fire" composer Vangelis sounds like a hyperactive video game. An all-star chorus featuring Dyan Cannon, Stevie Wonder, Christopher Cross and Lionel Richie is wasted on some of the dumbest pseudo-spiritual lyrics ever written.
Side two is a triumph. Michael Sembello's "(If It) Hurts Just a Little" is an even more infectious dance number than "Love Is in Control." Sembello's song creates a stirring call-and-response between Summer's pulpit-thumping advice and her choir's congregational testifying. Summer's enchanting, gospel-trained voice rises heavenward even as it cracks like a whip on the earthbound funky beat. Summer, Temperton and keyboardist David Foster wrote "Love Is Just a Breath Away," which creates a hypnotic trance. Summer's voice shimmers with the same buzzing control as the swarm of synthesizers around her.
Summer's version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" will not make anyone forget Billy Eckstine's classic jazz version, but Summer simplifies it into a steamy soul ballad and sings her heart out. Bruce Springsteen wrote "Protection" specifically for Summer, and he pushes her through this galloping rocker with his prodding guitar. The album's most interesting song is "Livin' in America," an ode to the "land of opportunity" by Summer, Jones, Temperton, Foster and Toto's Steve Lukather. The song's view that anyone can make it in America through hard work is extremely naive (just ask August Darnell), but is enjoyably quaint like an old Frank Capra movie. Its rousing chorus--led by the electrifyingly evangelical Summer--will convert all but the most cynical.
The album's instrumental star is Ernie Watts, fresh from the Rolling Stones tours. Watts' saxophone solos are not jazz-oriented, but are honking soul shouts in the tradition of King Curtis, David "Fathead" Newman and Clarence Clemons. Otherwise the record is dominated by synthesizers; even the drum and base tracks are often synthesized. Producer Quincy Jones is smart enough, though, to restrain the synths so they nearly frame Summer's grand singing.
"Gap Band IV" (Total experience, TE-1-3001) sounds like a sampler album of the upcoming singles by Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Bootsy, Funkadelic and Slave. This does not mean that the Gap Band's songs sound like second-rate imitations of these great acts; the songs sound like first-rate alternatives. The Gap Band may not be innovative, but this trio can write melodies, arrange harmonies and sustain rhythm as well as any of the acts above.
The Gap Band consists of the three Wilson brothers from Tulsa, Okla.: lead singer Charlie, bassist Robert and trumpeter Ronnie. On "Gap Band IV" (actually their sixth album), their songwriting skills have reached the level of consummate craftmanship. Working as a team with longtime producer and co-writer Lonnie Simmons, the Gap Band creates consistently catchy melodies and dance rhythms. With Charlie Wilson's supple, Stevie Wonder-ful voice and first-rate playing throughout, "Gap Band IV" is one of the year's most satisfying soul albums.
The ballads, especially "Stay With Me" and "I Can't Get Over You," boast the best melodies. They remind one of Earth, Wind & Fire's agile horn arrangements and graceful vocal blends. Two mid-tempo songs--"Lonely Like Me" and "You Dropped a Bomb on Me"--remind one of Wonder. A captivating tune and groove are established and endlessly repeated as the singer and soloists begin improvising wildly above. The album's rap number, "Talkin' Back," is much more in the witty Bootsy style than in the Sugarhill Gang style. "Outstanding" contrasts a lead vocal with choral surges much as Slave would. The first single, "Early in the Morning," is 6 1/2 minutes of multi-layered funk in the exhilarating tradition of Funkadelic.