Fever In, Fever Out
On their first two releases, the 1992 EP In Search of Manny and the '94 full-length Natural Ingredients, Luscious Jackson's four-tough-New York-women onslaught jumped and grooved. It worked, and not in a try-to-be-black (they aren't) funkster wanna-be kind of way, either. Luscious Jackson's trademark groove had a decidedly downtown (Manhattan) feel; laid back and jazzy in a relaxed and honest, almost alt. rock sort of style--not unlike the conceptual approach of its buddies (and Grand Royal label czars) the Beastie Boys (for whom Luscious percussionist Kate Schellenbach played drums in the Beasties' hard-core, pre-rap days).
To this history, add exhibit C: 1996's Fever In, Fever Out, produced by renowned studio wizard Daniel Lanois. So what's the verdict? Things don't bode well, I'm afraid, judging from the album's Nancy Sinatra-meets-the-Go-Go's opener, "Naked Eye," playing now on an alternative rock station near you. The tune has its melodic and vocal moments, but the beat's all wrong if you're looking for the streetwise feel of previous Luscious efforts--the track's just too straightahead to be low-down and smoky.
The soul evoked on Fever is distinctly of the 1970s, Chi-Lites/Barry White variety (especially on "Don't Look Back"). There's also the verse melody on "Why Do I Lie," which all but totally rips off the Earth, Wind and Fire song "Fantasy." This sort of derivative material just doesn't suit Luscious Jackson. Neither does the up-front-and-naked production on the vocals. Jackson's lyrics were never that strong when they strayed from the "we are women, hear us roar" vein, as they do all over this album.
But still, when the Jackson four want to go all out and get down, they can--check out the reverse guitar and just-right male backing vocals over the rolling backbeat of "Electric," or "Faith," which takes us to a nice, low, dirty place--with a pretty melody, yet. The group also pulls off the Liz Phair/Belly thing passably well ("Under Your Skin"), but is that what we really want from this crew?
The biggest problem is Lanois' production--his influence is all over, right down to the instrumentation and arrangements (yes, he plays on several tracks). There's plenty of low-end here, to make you think you're gettin' down. But while Lanois' trademark high and lonesome, "spacious" sound may work well for U2, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris (whom he imports for backing vocals on two cuts), he's out of his territory here, and he's led this band astray.
Tony! Toni! Tone!
House of Music
As smooth-groove disciples of the best R&B from the '60s through the '90s, Tony! Toni! Tone! plays with the thrifty assurance of a studio band--recalling and sometimes re-creating the soul of Philly, Motown and Memphis with a little East Bay grease from the trio's hometown of Oakland. Instead of preaching musical revolution, the group testifies to four decades of tradition with impeccable harmonies and subtle sonic updates.
House of Music is the group's fourth album and its first effort since 1993's Sons of Soul. From the titles alone, you might guess not much is new with the Tonyies (their spelling), and it isn't: Raphael Wiggins, the group's unacknowledged but obvious leader, may have changed his last name to Saadiq (Arabic for "man of his word"), he may have spent the past three years working with D'Angelo, the Roots, and A Tribe Called Quest, but his singing and writing--he wrote or co-wrote eight of House of Music's 14 songs--remain true to earlier inspirations.
"Thinking of You" is a faithful approximation of Al Green, almost as satisfying to sway to as the right reverend himself. And "Still a Man" could pass for a recently discovered Temptations track, though its seven-minutes-plus length is strictly a CD-era indulgence. Sometimes House of Music veers too close to the Quiet Storm territory of Boyz II Men, as in the overorchestrated goo of "Holy Smokes and Gee Whiz." But the Tonyies are quick to follow with the up-tempo funk of "Annie Mae," which on the surface is about a neighborhood girl who grows up to become an exotic dancer; but the chorus, with a melody lifted from "Billie Jean," suggests a clever if homophobic joke about Michael Jackson: "Annie Mae's gotta make up her mind/Is it a girl or is it a guy?"
Almost every song has some reference to the past: The oohs and aahs of Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" are appropriated for a gorgeous bit of pillow talk, "Tossin' and Turnin'"; and the actual Tower of Power horns fill out the lush '70s sound of "Wild Child." "Let's Get Down," the group's collaboration with L.A. rapper DJ Quik, runs the greatest risk of sounding dated. Quik's delivery is old-school, strictly '80s, but his verses alternate with some creamy soul searching and gorgeous harmonies. There's no better proof that, unlike Lenny Kravitz, Tony! Toni! Tone! are masters of history, rather than slaves.
ears to the wall
It's almost as if the artists formerly known as Dirty Dozen Brass Band go out of their way to keep you from slipping ears to the wall onto your carousel. First, there are the liner notes by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, which not only make you want to drop the jewel box, but may push you toward giving up English as a primary language. Then the cut "Flow On," with a melody that's a cross between "Theme From S.W.A.T." and "Float On," features rapping. The rapping isn't quite as gruesome as Homer Simpson turning MC in a desperate attempt to save his failing snow-plow company--remember Santa's Little Helper and Snowball II fleeing Homer's word play in horror--but it's close.
In the years since the Jazz Crusaders dropped jazz from their name (and then dropped out altogether) and Tower of Power began releasing albums that joined the rotation on Wave stations across the country--the instrumental equivalent of going direct to video--the Dirty Dozen have valiantly done battle to keep the trombone moving in funk-based instrumentals. And live, there ain't many better at laying out the jam on the floor: Their chant "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now" joins "I Don't Believe You Want to Get Up and Dance (Oops!)" and "The Roof Is On Fire" in the Throw-Down Grunt Hall of Fame.
A new version of "Feet," the title track from the album of 12 years ago (the group's greatest accomplishment), is included on ears and comes close to making up for the spectacle of hearing the words "nine-six" and "phat" on a Dirty Dozen album.
The last thing the Doz need is to try an update, because it implies a lack of confidence in the sound that brought them to prominence in the first place. When they're hitting, there's nothing else quite like it, because of the fat bottom (note the spelling of "fat") oozing out of the tuba, grease that puts the uhh in funky. As they say in the Dozen's hometown of New Orleans, these guys do it to it in a live room, a phenomenon that has mostly gone uncaptured on disc. ears to the wall is competent enough, but we don't want tuna with good taste.