Street Scene, Summer '93

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THE BOTTOM LINE: A graceful album transports the sweet soul sounds of the past into the '90s.

Every so often, on the streets of big cities, you'll see a sidewalk salesman selling records. Ancient 33s from the '60s and '70s, all laid out in a row. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Marvin Gaye. Earth, Wind and Fire. Sounds from a softer, more soulful era, now on display as curiosities. In an era of DATs and New Jacks, such scenes have a poignant, out-of-touch, Willy Loman quality to them. You amble by and perhaps turn up the volume on your Sony Discman.

Close your eyes and listen to Tony Toni Tone's graceful new CD and you may think you're hearing one of those sidewalk sale records. The Tonyies are lead singer and bassist Raphael Wiggins, his guitarist brother D'wayne Wiggins, and their cousin, drummer Timothy Christian Riley. They're all in their mid-20s, and this CD is an R.-and-B. tribute to the music they grew up with. My Ex- Girlfriend borrows the bridge from Sly and the Family Stone's 1968 song M'Lady. As another cut fades, Raphael sings, "Last night a D.J. saved my life," a reference to Indeep's 1982 hit.

The Tonyies' first two albums produced such best-selling singles as Little Walter and It Never Rains in Southern California, but these were the kind of middling pop songs that you begin to like only after hearing them several dozen times on a radio station you're too lazy to change. The Tonyies' new material is more sophisticated, emotionally and musically. Tell Me Mama consciously evokes the best of the Jackson 5 (without copying them), and then inventively toys with the groove in a horn break. Near the end of the funky What Goes Around Comes Around, the Tonyies throw in a reggae rap, performed by Trinidadian rapper General Grant. And on the 9-minute song Anniversary, Raphael sings of mature, lasting love over a sea of strings: "I've only made plans to hold your little hand/ It's our anniversary."

This summer, on the streets of big cities, high schoolers will be engaging in their usual vehicular mating ritual. Guys in long baggy shorts leaning against their Jeeps; girls strolling by in laughing pairs or trios; the pumping music on the Jeep stereos expressing everything that's unsaid. And what will be playing? Bell Biv DeVoe. Dr. Dre. And this album. Conscious of history, the Tonyies have made themselves a band of the here and now.