* * * "E.S.P." The Bee Gees. Warner Bros. Though this is the Bee Gees' first album in six years, you can tell they haven't stopped listening to the radio or keeping up with new releases. Most of the songs sport contemporary, techno-style arrangements that rely heavily on synthesizer and drum machines.
A few songs even recall specific artists and/or their hits. "Backtafunk" is a light, keyboard-centered funk piece along the lines of David Bowie's "Modern Love"; "The Longest Night" has the supple rhythms and layered harmonies of a Fleetwood Mac ballad, and "Crazy for Your Love" is a rollicking pop piece that suggests Kenny Loggins.
The Bee Gees have long been pop chameleons, soaking up the music around them and creating their own approximations. They borrowed from the Beatles for such early hits as "Lonely Days," drew on R&B; influences for the blue-eyed soul smash "Jive-Talkin' " and tapped into the then-burgeoning disco scene for such hits as "You Should Be Dancing."
Most pop artists draw inspiration from the music that has come before. The Bee Gees just do it more than most. They even borrow from themselves. "Live or Die (Hold Me Like a Child)" features the distinctive three-part harmonies of the trio's early hits. "Overnight" is a seamless pop/rocker that would have fit snugly into 1979's "Spirits Having Flown" album.
One of the new songs pays homage to the oldies. The light funk piece "This Is Your Life" has a witty rap that includes titles or musical hooks from more than a dozen of the Bee Gees' past hits. It's a clever gimmick, but also a risky one: Recounting the group's greatest glories ultimately points out the comparative weakness of the new material. The album's big ballad, "Angela," is pretty, but thin. It doesn't hold a candle to the gorgeous "How Deep Is Your Love" and "Too Much Heaven," which are saluted in the rap.
With help from top producer Arif Mardin, the Bee Gees have done a good job of keeping their sound contemporary. They just could have used a few more killer songs.