“Space children, are there any others?” On their fourth album, Nightbirds, Labelle looked the future in the face and put out a call — who’s coming along for the ride? With Patti LaBelle’s strident, nasal bellow in the lead, the band had always dealt in sassy, loose-limbed structures; the three women’s voices rolled over one another in waves. On Nightbirds, producer Allen Toussaint modernized this ferocious free-for-all with an almost mechanical underpinning of robot funk and juke-joint piano janglings. “Lady Marmalade” bursts off the first side with monstrous power. A disco staple today, it’s actually slower and harder than a classic 4/4 dance number, full of sinister rhythmic spaces in which the singers roar and tumble. No sad-hooker stories for these ladies — it’s Marmalade who’s having all the fun, while her enchanted john is left tormented by the encounter.
The band broke loose from the decorous girl-group tradition on Nightbirds and redefined sexual relations using the terms of R&B and its debt to gospel as metaphors for a larger cultural move. “Somebody Somewhere” confronts female indecision, hints that God might be the answer, but finds salvation in the arrangement — blaring horns and a New Orleans strut. “Are You Lonely?” is nouveau urban funk made stately by Toussaint’s marching piano and gritty by impatient bass arabesques. When claiming empowerment — cultural, sexual and spiritual — the band is fiercely engaged, responding in kind to the raucous percussion of “What Can I Do for You?” and forgoing its gospel unison to swoosh in sisterly harmony on the repetitive, hymnlike “It Took a Long Time.” Toussaint’s compositions bristle with suggestiveness: “Don’t Bring Me Down” is sly, stop-start R&B, showcasing Patti at her sassiest and most elastic. The poignant “All Girl Band” stumps along cheerily, pretending it’s not about the quotidian struggle of being young, female and relentlessly hopeful. By 1974, black had been beautiful for almost a decade; the astrofunk goddesses of Labelle made it chic.