Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

Published February 17, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Jason Kay, leader of Jamiroquai, is not held in high regard by most of the music press. He is persistently written off as a white guy playing black music, a hapless Stevie Wonder clone, the walking embodiment of the simple-minded New Age hippie. It didn't help that his outfit's first two albums -- 1993's "Emergency On Planet Earth" and 1994's "The Return of the Space Cowboy" -- were centered around such pedestrian themes as romance and working for The Man. But as the band's latest release, "Traveling without Moving," shows, the criticism has only helped the 26-year-old Brit streamline his craft.

On "Traveling Without Moving," Kay has condensed the wide-eyed politics, tightened up the band's nervous musical energy and generally matured with grace. He upholds the lustrous funk tradition of the 1970s, one embodied by the sweat-drenched, rhythm-driven work of artists like Earth, Wind & Fire and Roy Ayers. The new album is pumped up with elaborate and catchy tunes that incorporate elements of straight soul, modern funk and electro, and lyrics that deal with more intricate subjects than previous efforts.

Kay keeps the party alive with unbridled enthusiasm, whether exploring lust in"Alright," exotic soundscapes in "Didjital Vibrations" or the chaos of modern life in "Virtual Insanity." In "Drifting Along" he even takes a stab at reggae rhythms and phrasing; as he slinks his way through lines like, "I'm feeling the pressure all around me crumble / But I won't be pulled down this time," his clear and sweet voice floats deliciously over the warm tones of the music.

The current Jamiroquai line-up -- Toby Smith on keyboards, Stuart Zender on bass, Derrick McKenzie on drums, Simon Katz on guitar and Willis on Digeridoo -- turns in impeccable performances. "Traveling Without Moving" does sound retro at times, especially when the horns and wah-wah guitar kick in on "You Are My Love," but nobody said disco bands were meant to innovate. For easy-to-digest, happy-go-lucky fun, it rarely gets better than this.

By Aidin Viziri

Aidin Viziri is a freelance writer whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ray Gun and Detour.

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