THE FUNKY HEADHUNTER
Hammer (Giant 24545) After the spectacular crash-and-burn of "Too Legit to Quit," Hammer has come back the only way he knows how -- hard. In fact, "The Funky Headhunter" goes so far as to present the one-time pop star as a bona fide hard-core rapper, offering "Somethin' for the O.G.'s" and insisting in the title tune that "These are the days of the payback." Tough-talk aside, though, it's hard to notice much difference between the sound of these raps and early stuff like "Let's Get Started" -- there's the same pumping bass, chanted catch-phrases and fondness for group vocal counterpoint. Unfortunately, Hammer's best hooks verge on nonsense ("Pumps and a Bump"? Please!), and though it's nice to hear him pledge allegiance to his homies in Oaktown, you have to wonder what an O.G. like him is doing holding a croquet mallet on the album's inside back cover photo.
Beck (Geffen 24634)
Although the droll wit and hip-hop skiffle groove of "Loser" has jTC made Beck a winner with Modern Rock Radio, it's hard to imagine the guy ever becoming a full-blown pop star. It isn't that he's just a one-hit wonder; as the hook-heavy "Mellow Gold" makes plain, the left-field appeal of "Loser" was hardly a fluke. But Beck's fondness for slacker sarcasm and stylistic in-jokes don't exactly make him ripe for mass-market success -- particularly given his penchant for unprintable song titles. But apart from the casual profanity, the album is as irresistible as it is odd, from the folk-rock mockery of "Pay No Mind" to the Beastie-ish funk of "Soul Sucking Jerk."
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (MCA 10927)
It used to be that bronco-busters listened mostly to cowboy songs and Western swing. But if the soundtrack of "8 Seconds" is any indication, today's rodeo crowd wants to rock and roll just like everybody else. Granted, the songs on this soundtrack tend to come on as country, not rock, but the difference is really more a matter of background than actual sound. After all, Vince Gill's take on "When Will I Be Loved" is nearly identical to Linda Ronstadt's version, while the raging guitars and butt-kicking drums of John Anderson's "Burnin' Up the Road" would be as at home on a Lynyrd Skynyrd album as they are here. Besides, no matter how new-fangled the sound might be, there's plenty of old-time country spirit in David Lee Murphy's "Just Once" or Brooks & Dunn's "Ride 'Em High, Ride 'Em Low."
MJQ & FRIENDS
The Modern Jazz Quartet (Atlantic 82538)
Under normal circumstances, a new recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet would be cause for joy, if not outright celebration. But instead of bringing a smile, "MJQ & Friends" is more likely to make long-time fans feel somewhat cheated. Instead of the classic chamber jazz we've come to expect of the group, what this album offers is a string of celebrity jams that leave the MJQ sounding like just another rhythm section. While some throw sparks -- particularly Jimmy Heath's melancholy "Blues for Juanita" and Phil Woods' elegiac "Django" -- most are disappointingly sodden.