Pure Funk (Polygram TV 314-558-299)
Millennium Funk Party (Rhino 75467)
It used to be that '60s soul was the epitome of pop-music cool. Between "The Big Chill" generation's veneration of Motown and the Blues Brothers' emulation of Sam & Dave, there was no better way of proving your musical pedigree than professing a fondness for Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding.
Not anymore. These days, pop fans want the funk, the whole funk, and nothing but the funk. Booker T. & the MGs are out, Kool & the Gang is in, and even white boys want to play that funky music.
Whether this is the result of a generational shift, or simply the backwash from 15 years of rap hits built around funk samples, is hard to say. But regardless of reason, funk collections have become a booming business. Originally advertised through campy TV ads, the 20-song anthology "Pure Funk" has become a hot seller in CD stores, inspiring similarly themed discs, such as "Millennium Funk Party."
Essentially, each CD functions as a hi-tech mix tape, offering an assortment of artists while focusing on a single idea (in this case, funk). Of course, you could always make your own, and many fans have. But apart from the ready-made convenience, these discs are a godsend for those whose music library doesn't already include Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good" or the Commodores' "Brick House."
Both discs, tellingly enough, begin with "Brick House," but from there the differences become more apparent. Despite the cover featuring models in '70s-style funk garb (platforms, open polyester shirts, oversized afros), the offerings on "Pure Funk" aren't entirely restricted to that era, with several tracks - Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots," Cameo's "Word Up" and Rick James' "Super Freak" - culled from the '80s.
Not sticking to the '70s is hardly a criminal offense, but not sticking to the concept ought to be. Because it takes such a broad approach to playing that funky music, "Pure Funk" sometimes seems to lose its focus. It's nice to hear Rose Royce singing "Car Wash" and L.T.D.'s "(Everytime I Turn Around) Back In Love Again," but did we really need Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" or Yarbrough & Peoples' "Don't Stop the Music"? Probably not.
"Pure Funk" does have the advantage of extremely tight sequencing, eliminating the two seconds of space most CDs include between tracks. This keeps the music flowing without resorting to tacky fade-ins, making the album slightly better suited to dance parties.
"Millennium Funk Party" plays it a little closer to the calendar, going no further from the '70s than George Clinton's 1983 hit "Atomic Dog." Not only does the collection have all the obvious tracks - Parliament's "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)," the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster," Earth, Wind & Fire's "Serpentine Fire" - but it includes such lesser-known delights as B.T. Express' "Do It ('Til You're Satisfied)" and Slave's guitar-seared "Slide."
Its only missteps are Lakeside's "Fantastic Voyage" (which boasts a better chorus than verse) and the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" (which seems a little too old-fashioned), but they're minor errors.
Still, neither collection includes any James Brown or Sly & the Family Stone (blasphemy!), and personally, I would have liked to have heard Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady," Kool & the Gang's "Funky Stuff" and the Temptations' "Shakey Ground."
Then again, I can always make my own mix tapes.
"Pure Funk": ***
"Millennium Funk Party": ***1/2
Where Your Road Leads (MCA 70023)
It's tempting sometimes to equate slickness with artificiality, as if the only way a singer could handle an elaborate arrangement would be to surrender any real emotional involvement in the song. Fortunately, there's always Trisha Yearwood to prove that polish doesn't preclude authenticity. There's no denying that "Where Your Road Leads" is long on studio craft, from the radio-friendly sheen of "There Goes My Baby" to the lush backing tracks of "I'll Still Love You More." But Yearwood has a way of cutting to the heart of these songs, so that what comes across is the music's emotional punch, whether in the tuneful bounce of "Powerful Thing" or in the slow, bluesy pulse of "Bring Me All Your Lovin'." ***
Return of the Headhunters (Verve 314 539 028)
From the Beastie Boys to Me'shell Ndegeocello, rap and funk stars have long lauded the Headhunters - and for good reason. Even though this crew came out of the jazz fusion movement, it never let adventurous improvisation get in the way of a good groove. Now, after more than two decades of inactivity, the group is back, sounding as strong as ever. As with the group's '70s material, the tracks on "Return of the Headhunters" are deeply funky, yet supple enough to allow the guest soloists - mostly notably, former boss Herbie Hancock and pianist Billy Childs - free reign. There are also a couple of attempts at conventional funk with R&B; vocalist N'Dea Davenport, but instrumentals like "Skank It" and "PP Head" end up carrying the day. ***
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury 314 558 338)
Lucinda Williams has a spirit from the days before rock and roll divorced itself from country music, when characters such as Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis could be wild and ragged and satisfy both genres. Along with a healthy dose of the blues, Williams blends styles so naturally on "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" that trying to define the result is pointless. It's just great music. In a perfect world, Williams would be the top artist in the land. But a perfect world wouldn't provide the lust that oozes from "Right in Time," the angry love of "Joy" or the willful self-destruction of "Drunken Angel." Her voice hot enough to boil a crawfish, Williams makes a compelling case for falling from grace. ****
Powertrip (A&M; 314 540 908)
As rock and roll slips inexorably into old age, it gets harder and harder for guitar bands to seem wild and crazy. That hasn't stopped the men of Monster Magnet, however. "Powertrip" is full of bad-boy fare, from the fantasy photos in the CD booklet (singer Dave Wyndorf, flanked by babes, on a throne in hell) to the ooh-scary! song titles ("Goliath and the Vampires" is typical). When the group gets the proper balance between tuneful aggression and outrageous attitude, the results are irresistible, as the campy, relentless "Space Lord" makes plain. But when Monster Magnet misses - which it does more often than not - the results end up sounding somewhere between a Zodiac Mindwarp tribute band and a bad imitation White Zombie. **
High Bias (Concord/Stretch 9017)
For years, art-rock bashers believed that it was Keith Emerson's keyboard excesses that made Emerson Lake & Palmer so
unbearable. Listening to Niacin's second album, "High Bias," offers an alternate theory: Bassist Greg Lake was the weak link. Granted, that may in part be because Billy Sheehan, the bassist and leader of this trio, is so awesomely capable, coming across like a cross between Stanley Clarke and Eddie Van Halen. Yet as jaw-dropping as his playing on "Slapped Silly" or the title tune may be, it never outshines either Dennis Chambers' lean, powerful drumming or John Novello's meaty, virtuosic keyboard work. Even the few forays into fusion jazz are impressive, though purists will be less than impressed by the trio's take on Weather Report's "Birdland." ***
Cleveland Rocks! Music from The Drew Carey Show (Rhino 75342)
As the quirky sitcom "The Drew Carey Show" entered our prime-time lineup in 1995 with cutesy musical numbers and clever little dance routines, we saw just the right musical mix in a television program. No "Cop Rock" here. The soundtrack, "Cleveland Rocks! Music from The Drew Carey Show," offers 24 tunes, including the opening tracks from each season, "Moon Over Parma," "Five O'Clock World" and both Ian Hunter's and the Presidents of the United States of America's "Cleveland Rocks," as well as priceless snippets from actual shows, including a live version of "Rocky Mountain Way" with Joe Walsh and Little Richard and Drew's meek rendition of "High Hopes." Not exactly Frank Sinatra, mind you. Fans of the show will get a kick out of this one. ***
Pub Date: 8/06/98