THE HOTTEST non-Michael Jackson single on black radio recently has been Mtume's "Juicy Fruit."
With its lazy groove, synthesizer backbeat, jingly melody and suggestive lyrics, it provides a welcome break in the Jackson hegemony. The single is typical of the languid, erotic synth-funk on the Mtume album of the same name (Epic FE 38588).
Mtume (pronounced Em-too-may) is both a person and a group. James Mtume is a well-established songwriter-producer, while Mtume is the funk band he established to perform his songs.
In the past, Mtume albums have been overly slick and cluttered. On "Juicy Fruit" though, Mtume has scraped off the slickness and weeded out the clutter to create a stripped-down funk that effectively highlights the syncopated bass lines, the synthesized percussion and singer Tawatha's beguiling vocals.
Mtume's songs on "Juicy Fruit" are written around rhythmic figures rather than melodies, and the new arrangements push those rhythms up front.
The hit title track sets in motion three stop-and-go rhythms--one on synthesizer, one on guitar, one on bass--all at a slow tempo. Tawatha's savory soprano trills high above the bass-heavy backing with little in between. Most of the songs employ this combination of slow tempos and thundering backbeat, thanks to adroit use of synthesizers.
This gives the songs the leisurely pace of romanticism and the physical kick of eroticism, reflected in the lyrics by Mtume and keyboardist Philip Fields. On "Green Light" (a clear theft of Parliament's "Flashlight"), the revved-up synthesizers are joined by beeping car horns and the exclamation: "I'd love to ride down your highway." Mtume has nothing original to say about love and sex, but he says it effectively.
Washington's veteran soul duo, Peaches & Herb, make a big comeback on their new album, "Remember" (Columbia FC 38746), and much of the credit should go to producer Dave Wolfert, who also revitalized the Four Tops.
On the Peaches & Herb album, Wolfert emphasizes the old-fashioned soul values of good voices and strong melodies. Though the backing is up to date with tasteful synthesizer work by Wolfert and Ed Walsh, the focus is on the musical dialogues between Peaches & Herb and on the 10 appealing songs Wolfert has assembled.
The best is David Lasley's "I Got a Groove On," which has an early '60s rhythm and blues feel. Wolfert supplies the light, punchy dance-craze music, and the singers crow with the exuberance of a more innocent age. Wolfert and partner Sandy Linzer wrote three strong songs: the ballad "Remember"; the cheerful sing-along "Keep On Smiling"; and the sleek mainstream pop of "In My World."
All 10 songs boast sturdy, memorable melodies. Peaches & Herb are good but not exceptional singers, and they are smart enough to bring out those melodies fully without allowing stylistic gimmicks to interfere. Peaches & Herb take turns discussing the problems of an old relationship or the potential of a new one from the female and male sides of the fence. The discussion is never deep and the endings are always happy, but the songs are as enjoyable as well-crafted pop-soul can be.
On Deniece Williams' new album, "I'm So Proud" (Columbia FC 38622), the weakest links are two duets--one with Johnny Mathis and the other with Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire. Williams joins Mathis on a neo-disco trifle, "So Deep in Love," and teams with Bailey on "They Say," a rather bland tribute to Christianity.
Williams is at her best on this album when her sparkling soprano is free to seek its own way. When she tackles Curtis Mayfield's 1964 classic "I'm So Proud," she doesn't swagger her pride but whispers it confidentially, with breathy, perfect phrasing. On Ray Jones' up-tempo "Heaven in Your Eyes," Williams flutters her voice giddily without losing control of the sharp dance beat. Even when she's leaping intervals to hit notes perfectly, Williams never gives the impression she's working.
She gets excellent support on the new album from guitarists Jeff Baxter and Mike Sembello and from keyboardist George Duke, who produced four of the best cuts.
Williams is also emerging as a songwriter and producer herself. But her efforts sag when her themes become too ponderous, as they do on "Love, Peace and Unity." The simpler valentines, such as "It's Okay" and "I'm Glad It's You," boast contagious melodies and a seductive ease.