WE ARE NOT in a golden era of soul harmony groups. A few groups--most notably the O'Jays and the Four Tops--have kept up their standards, but too many have lost their best singers to solo careers and their vitality to production formulas. Most harmony groups today are no more than faint echoes of the days when the Temptations popped their fingers, spun in unison and blended their five romantic voices seamlessly. Sadly, even the Temptations are a pale imitation of their former selves.
The Temptations staged an encouraging comeback last year, when the great voices of David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks rejoined the fold for the "Reunion" album and tour. This year's follow-up album, "Surface Thrills" (Gordy 6032GL), not only lacks Ruffin and Kendricks but also the heavyweight producers--Rick James, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy--who made "Reunion" special. Instead, "Surface Thrills" was largely written and produced by Dennis Lambert and Benjamin Wright, and they weren't able to come up with an original idea between them.
The new album is quite listenable. The current five Temptations and the usual L.A. studio pros move professionally through the derivative material, and two songs are actually pretty good imitations of the classic Temptations ballad style. A lush blend of voices echoes Dennis Edwards' lead vocal confession on "Love on My Mind Tonight" and "What a Way to Put It." Edwards never achieves Ruffin's intense romanticism on the ballads, though, and sounds quite stilted on the uptempo funk tunes, which combine a plodding beat, minimal melody and silly "socially conscious" lyrics. The supposedly mythic lyrics to "The Seeker" are in fact no more profound than the instructional lyrics to "Bring Your Body Here (Exercise Chant)."
ENTREPRENEUR Dick Griffey has tried to replicate the Motown system with his Solar (Sound of Los Angeles Records) label. The Whispers are supposed to be his equivalent of the Temptations. Unfortunately, Griffey has only replicated Motown in its period of decline, and the Whispers sound more like the modern, formulaic Temptations than the group at its peak.
The Whispers' new album, "Love for Love" (Solar 60216-1), is consistently pleasant but never riveting. Brothers Walter and Wallace Scott are good but not especially distinctive lead singers. On the three songs produced by Leon Sylvers, the souped-up arrangements tend to drown out the vocal harmonies. The only memorable songs are two simple, catchy love ballads by Ray Obiedo and Teresa Trull, "Try It Again" and the title tune. Otherwise, the songs suffer from too much style and not enough personality.
THE GROUP Change emerged at the end of the disco era with the irresistible dance hits, "A Lovers' Holiday" and "Searching." Italian producers Mauro Malavasi and Jacques Fred Petrus constructed the hi-tech Eurodisco backing for the group, and Luther Vandross supplied the powerhouse vocals. Unfortunately, Vandross soon moved on to a solo career, and the Eurodisco beat soon sounded worn out.
The latest Change album, "This Is Your Time" (Atlantic 80053-1), features undistinguished vocals by Deborah Cooper, Rick Brennan and James (Crab) Robinson amid the mathematical exactness of electronic percussion and synthesizers. The voices are just more instruments to be manipulated by Malavasi and Petrus, who returned home to Italy to make this record. The results have a certain pristine perfection but little soul.
BLUE MAGIC was part of the successful Philly soul movement of the early '70s. This male quartet, built around falsetto vocals of Ted Milos, was sort of a second-string Stylistics. Blue Magic's comeback album, "Magic No." (Mirage 90074-1), was produced by Philly veteran Butch Ingram, who applied post-disco dance tracks to the basic doo-wop vocals. Thus the romantic brew of falsetto squeals and repeating syllables is given a muscular punch by the Ingram family band.
On the best songs--"For the Love of You," "Since You've Been Gone" and the title track--Blue Magic sets in spin a vertigo of voices only to have the song nailed to a big beat by Ingram or coproducer Billy Neale. Sawyer is a solid but not great singer and these are not classic songs, but still this is the best vocal group album of the recent batch.