RECORDINGS

Tom Jones
The Lead and How to Swing It
(Interscope)

For millions of females over the last several decades, Tom Jones has been a seething, pulsating mass of unbridled sexuality, the consummate stud with a throat of leather. For millions of others, he has been the ultimate camp joke with a throat of leather.

Sad to say that Tom's new album neatly slices off the camp part, leaving nothing more than a great big joke. And not the funny kind. The best thing about T.L.A.H.T.S.I. is the cover; the macho Jones stands with fists clenched, screaming with rage. Or something. He's sporting light-blue polyester Sansibelt slacks and a mesh tank top. And the old guy's still in shape, ladies! Next to him is some babe in a silver-lame bikini, a metallic raincoat and matching hardhat. Such imagery. Inside, there's a shot of Tom in midstep, wearing a bright-red vinyl outfit that makes him look like a pimp action figure.

But what of the music?
You're better off just looking at the cover art; this is apparently Tom's latest attempt at becoming a viable dance-club artist. Sure, he can still wail, but what's the point of wasting those monstrous pipes on a shitty disco recording?

Bad Religion
Stranger Than Fiction
(Atlantic)

Like most bands with a lot to say, Bad Religion often tries to say too much. The band's new one, Stranger Than Fiction, is a prime example. Granted, the CD's 16 songs jump and shout with a charming West Coast punk exuberance, and it's nice that lead singer Greg Graffin's voice is strong enough to keep him from whining while he rants. But half of the time, Graffin sounds like he's got one hand on the microphone and the other rifling through a thesaurus, frantically trying to find bigger words to make his point. The cavalcade of verbiage winds up with syllables piled against each other like a bad Morrissey song.

It all makes an initially attractive CD an eventual irritation. Lines like "Our hearts palpitate anxiously as we soon will lay supine" and "Pinhole embers fade into a morning sky filled with poignant morose wonder" are more than laughable. They cancel out whatever the hell the message was in the first place. And they make a liar of the band's short, sharp, punky persona.

Various artists
Phat Trax, Volumes 1-5
(Rhino)

The clothing fashions of the Seventies and Eighties aren't the only things from the era of Afro rakes and bell-bottoms to invade the Nineties. That's right, the music's back, too, and Rhino has filled Phat Trax with 50 of the era's finest true-blood funk tracks.

Funkadelic, Brick, Cameo, the Gap Band, the Female Preacher, Lyn Collins, Heat Wave and many other precursors to today's hip-hop are featured on the five-CD collection, and, far from being a history lesson, the tracks have lost no weight over the years.

The opening jam on Volume 1, "(Not Just) Knee Deep" by Funkadelic, is a standard in hip-hop (De La Soul sampled this cut on its classic "Me Myself & I"). Brick follows with "Dazz," one of its most monstrous cuts. Those keeping score will note that Ice Cube used this cut as the prototype for his classic "No Vaseline." Volume 2 offers Faze-O with the classic workout "Riding High," a seductive groove that paved the way for gangsta rap. One Way's "Cutie Pie" is a rare and tasty hump groove from 1982, and Slave's timeless rump shaker "Watching You" features the hypnotic vocals of Steve Arrington. This is a cut designed to rock any house party, and deserves a longer mix. No classic-funk compilation would be complete without Teena Marie, also known as the "Vanilla Child." Teena was one of the first white female singers to be accepted in the R&B scene, and is featured with her dance-floor classic "Square Biz."

Beyond the music, Phat Trax offers liner notes that are an excellent crash course for new-school hip-hoppers and a refresher course for old-timers. While "best of" compilations are turning up everywhere, Rhino's retrospective of the funk era is done with style, and--most important--with a total jam factor.

Various artists
The Acid Jazz Test Part Two
(Moonshine Music)

Mix rap, funk and hip-hop with the rebirth of cool. Then take all the adventurous edges from those idioms and shape 'em smooth, soft and shiny. That's "acid jazz."

At least that's how it's represented on The Acid Jazz Test, a rather tame compilation of 11 acts pumping and grinding their big-city grooves. Acid Jazz is intended to put a few street stains on the classical jazz vehicle, but this is more like sidewalk music. It works when one of the artists, vocalist Deborah Anderson, sways like Sade on the opening cut, and it's even better when the Brooklyn Funk Essentials and a group named Bonjour Monsieur Basie add some oomph to their representative takes on the dinner 'n' disco vibe.

But adopting new formulas for older styles isn't always a good idea; Cleveland Lounge, for example, gets caught in the middle of an overbearing soul singer and an underdeveloped song. No amount of study time can help with that particular test, acid or otherwise.

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