Almost two years have passed since “Lady Marmalade,” Labelle’s voulez-vous coucher Creole hooker disco funk single, and it should be apparent that they’re not going to record anything like a followup. Like Stevie Wonder, Labelle is more inclined to comment on the disco phenomenon than to capitalize on it; their ambition is to shuffle minds, not feet. Besides, they have their own party ethic — one that comes across much better onstage than on record.
That ethic has something to do with outer space, inner space, political space and sexual space (the last three of which predominate on Chameleon). Labelle attempts to meld them into a magical space which transports the listener as effectively as flashing lights and constant motion and a mechanical beat transport the dancer. This would work much better without side one, which suffers from a pair of extremely pedestrian songs of the love’s lost variety, David Rubinson’s retread-funk production and Patti LaBelle’s frequently abrasive vocals. But even here there are some nice touches: the climax of “Get You Somebody New,” one of the offending songs, with a centrifugal barrage of sound reinforcing Patti’s hysterical “I can’t stand it”; and the intro to Nona Hendryx’s “Come into My Life,” which Labelle’s breathy sensuality turns into a sexual pun.
But forget that side. Side two is where Labelle has decided to sweep you away. “If you believe in the magical world …” they sing at the end of “Chameleon,” just before dissolving into a shimmering triptych of nocturnal experience. The night begins with a frantic immersion in disco ecstasy (“Gypsy Moths”), shifts to mystical shadowtalk for an introduction to the forbidden (“A Man in a Trenchcoat [Voodoo]”) and climaxes with a sybaritic celebration of feminine love, “Going Down Makes Me Shiver.”
“Chameleons seek the night before the dawn,” Patti sings at the beginning of side two — now you see why. It has occasionally been suggested that Labelle is less than talented as a vocal trio. A record like Chameleon shows how completely they can transcend such limitations. There is a depth and texture to their performance, to their music and to Hendryx’s songwriting that’s as stunning as the show they staged at the Metropolitan Opera two years ago.