FEW FUNK BANDS have been imitated as much as Earth, Wind & Fire. The Gap Band, the Dazz Band and Cameo have all modeled their current success on the sleek, intricate arrangements and steady groove of the late '70s Earth, Wind & Fire classics. Unfortunately, Earth, Wind & Fire itself has joined the ranks of those imitating its best records. The band has run out of ideas, and its new album, "Powerlight" (Columbia TC 38367), is a capable but redundant rendering of an old formula. Much livelier examples of modern funk are Kiddo's debut album and Hamilton Bohannon's collaboration with Ray Parker Jr.
Earth, Wind & Fire is playing and singing as well as ever. Indeed, the Phoenix Horns (the only redeeming element on Phil Collins' solo albums) are sharper than ever. Led by saxophonist Donald Myrick, the horns dart through sharp-turning arrangements and condensed solos with precise phrasing and tone. The vocal combination of Maurice White's resonant tenor and Philip Bailey's trilling falsetto is as exhilarating as ever. Secondary rhythm lines still lurk behind the sure, strong dance beat.
Though it's expertly performed, "Powerlight" simply lacks the material to be compelling. While the album largely avoids the bland spiritual platitudes that have plagued past Earth, Wind & Fire efforts, the new lyrics treat romance with cliche's so vague they seem impersonal. The album's most telling weakness, though, is its lack of strong melody hooks. Too many songs rely on repeated notes or simple climbs and falls over standard chord changes.
With so little substance to work with, it's no wonder that the band's skillful arrangements ring hollow. The album's two best cuts are "Side by Side," a tastefully arranged love ballad with an African percussion tag, and "Freedom of Choice," a hard-hitting protest against Reaganomics with densely packed vocals and Larry Dunn's soaring synthesizers.
The funk band that has been imitated even more than Earth, Wind & Fire is Parliament/Funkadelic (or P-Funk). Two P-Funk alumni--guitarist Michael Hampton and singer Donnie Sterling--have formed a new septet called Kiddo. Their first album, "Kiddo" (A&M SP-6-4924), has no official P-Funk sponsorship, but it extends the P-Funk sound into the funk-rock hybrid pioneered by Prince. "Kiddo" is an impressive debut and the best funk album released in the first quarter of 1983.
The album gets off to a slow start with two formulaic excursions by producers Reggie Andrews & Leon Ndugu Chancler. The final six songs, though, are either written or cowritten by Sterling, who skillfully mixes rock 'n' roll approaches into his funk songs. The lazy, liquid P-Funk groove is given a brisker pace and a harder edge.
Most impressive, though, are the band's ballads. Arthur Brown's thick, aggressive synthesizers lend a Prince-like punch to "Give It Up." Leroy Davis is an exceptional saxophonist whose solo has the melodic soulfulness of King Curtis. Michael Hampton plays an elegant guitar introduction to the ballad "Thinking About Your Charm," and provides chunky rhythm textures throughout the record. The rhythm section is capable of hard rock bashing on "Strangers" or a modified reggae shuffle on "Suzy's Gone." Kiddo is a band to watch.
Arista Records must wonder why Ray Parker Jr.'s new album has been credited to Hamilton Bohannon and released on Bohannon's label as "Make Your Body Move" (Compleat/Phase II CPL-1-1-003). Parker wrote the title tune and cowrote four of the six other songs. Parker is credited as coarranger and guitarist. Of course, Bohannon is the lead singer, producer, cowriter and coarranger. This collaboration between Parker--the leader of Raydio before becoming a solo star--and Bohannon--the leader of Motown's legendary house band in the '60s and the unsung pioneer of disco in the '70s--is an inspired match between a crossover star and a street music wizard.
Parker's feel for melody and rock 'n' roll influences gives Bohannon an accessibility he's never had. Bohannon's sure studio sense for compelling dance rhythms gives Parker a street boogie backing he's never had. Bohannon uses his house band and guest guitarist Parker to cook up the basic syncopation of the tunes, then reinforces the dance beat with thundering electric percussion and squiggling synthesizers. Thus he gets the best of both worlds: a tight band and state-of-the-art technology. This makes the title tune and "School Girl" irresistible dance workouts. Bohannon has been a neglected talent too long; maybe Parker can bring him the attention he deserves.