Lenny Kravitz (Virgin 40696) Given his fondness for mining the music's past, it's pretty funny to find Lenny Kravitz opening his new album, "Circus," with a song called "Rock and Roll Is Dead." Not that he means the title literally, of course; the chorus, like the song itself, offers more attitude than content. But that's entirely in keeping with the rest of Kravitz' aesthetic, which puts less emphasis on originality and daring than on well-chosen influences and painstaking production. If that leaves him seeming somewhat shallow at times, it should also be noted that it does little to diminish the appeal of his music. Because at bottom, what makes this "Circus" worth catching is the way its sounds coming through the speakers. And no matter how many classic rockers Kravitz may evoke -- from early Zeppelin on "Tunnel Vision" to the late Beatles on the title tune -- somehow he always manages to capture a piece of what drew us to the originals. It may not be art, but it's pretty good craft.
T.J. Kirk (Warner Bros. 45885)
Let's get this much straight from the start: There is no T.J. Kirk in T.J. Kirk. Instead, the name is meant to evoke the quartet's principal influences, with the "T" standing for Thelonious Monk, the "J" for James Brown, and the "Kirk" being Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It promises quite an ambitious blend, but the group's
debut, "T.J. Kirk," never quite delivers on that potential. It isn't that the players -- guitarists Will Bernard, John Schott and Charlie Hunter, plus drummer Scott Amendola -- have difficulty mixing and matching the material; if anything, one of the album's greatest pleasures stems from hearing them move from Brown's "Cold Sweat" into Kirk's "Rip, Rig & Panic," or folding some J.B. funk into Monk's "Epistrophy." But the foursome rarely take the idea further than that. Instead of forging new links between be-bop and funk, they just play as they please and let the compositional quotes uphold the premise. As a result, T.J. Kirk only occasionally lives up to its name.
THE CHARLATANS U.K.
The Charlatans U.K. (Beggars Banquet 92692)
Back when the Manchester scene was in full swing, all of Britain was abuzz with the possibility of rock and acid house meeting on an equal footing. It didn't happen with the Happy Mondays, though, nor did the Farm quite manage the trick, but it looks as if the Charlatans have finally succeeded where all the others failed. From the opening swirl of "Nine Acre Court," "The Charlatans U.K." seems to get all the elements right -- the throbbing bass, the crunchy guitars, even the sly, Jaggeresque vocals. Nor does the album fall off from there. Sure, the occasional classic-rock echoes, like the Hendrixian harmonies in "Just Lookin'," are a tad disappointing, suggesting that the band offers more brilliant surface than through-and-through genius. But when everything comes together, as it does on "Bullet Comes" or the deep-throbbing "Toothache," the Charlatans sound like the genuine article.
COOL AND STEADY AND EASY
Brooklyn Funk Essentials (Groovetown/RCA 66580)
Back in the '70s, when jazz-fusion was still in its prime, musicians like Tom Browne, Norman Connors, Ramsey Lewis and Lonnie Liston Smith took the idea of blending jazz and funk a step further and went after the R&B; market. Jazz fans wrinkled their noses in disdain, but many listeners liked what they heard -- and still do, if the number of jazz-funk samples in hip-hop is any indication. So it was probably inevitable that someone would try to update that sound, but who would have imagined it would be handled as well as Brooklyn Funk Essentials do it on "Cool and Steady and Easy"? Rather than just flesh out a few retro-grooves with bop-inflected horn solos, the BFE crew goes for true fusion.