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Dr. John: "Television", MCA/GRP

March 31, 1994|RANDY LEWIS

Want to know what rap might sound like if its practitioners put as much thought into melody and harmony as they do into rhythm and rhyme?

Look no further.

Following his roots-digging 1992 album, "Goin' Back to New Orleans," Dr. John journeys deep into the heart of funkness.

If John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, knows anything, it's how to craft seductive rhythms, and he makes the first nine songs here virtually into one long, swirling and soulful groove.

The album's funky foundation owes as much to the street-parade rhythms of New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indians as to pop-funk pioneers Sly Stewart and George Clinton. In his own distinctive way, Dr. John even carries forward the truth-is-funk and funk-can-save-the-world credo that's been Clinton's hallmark.

All but two of the songs are Rebennack originals--the exceptions being his cover of Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again)" and a super funked-up reading of the Motown classic "Money (That's What I Want)."

The subject at hand is as broad or as narrow as the listener wants it to be. Of course, you can sit back and very happily float on the musical textures Dr. John whips up with considerable help from drummer Fred Staehle and bassist David Barrard as well as Alvin (Red) Tyler on tenor sax and David (Fathead) Newman on tenor, alto and flute, guitarist Hugh McCrackin and trumpeter Charles Miller, among his large support cast.

But it's also possible to dig beneath the peppery rhymes and wordplay to find some subtle, and not-so-subtle, broadsides against a culture sorely in need of a stronger sense of community and values beyond instant gratification of the yearnings of the flesh.

The title track sets the tone with a character study of a sap whose life is at the mercy of his raging hormones. "Lissen" dares to suggest we shut off all the distractions--the TV, the CD, the FM, the MTV, the BET--that keep us from hearing the messages and the voices that really matter.

It's as topical as 1-900 phone sex lines ("Spaceship Relationship"), and as timeless as man's ability to deceive himself and his friends ("U Lie 2 Much").

As if to bring the excursion back to Earth, the final two numbers get a bit bluesier. The album concludes with "Same Day Service," a rollicking, James Booker-inspired pledge of unconditional love that's as applicable to human relationships as to the spiritual ones Dr. John finds so sadly lacking in the world at large.

* Dr. John and Sam & the Moonlighters play Friday at 8 and 10:30 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $19.50. (714) 496-8930.

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