To put it succinctly, the music of certain artists is primarily intended for fucking. Yeah, you can listen to it in your car when you're alone, but you won't get the most it has to offer unless it's playing on the stereo while you're doing the grind with someone not averse to grinding you in return.

Choosing soundtracks for seduction isn't as easy as it sounds, however, in large part because the CD you grab on your way to the sack says as much about you as the color and cleanliness of your underwear. Pick the wrong disc and your partner may turn into a human Frigidaire or, worse, break into hysterics at the wrong moment. You see, you're figuratively connecting your own romantic persona with that of the man or woman at the microphone--and if he or she doesn't seem sexy, there's a good chance you won't, either.

Maintaining your appeal, then, isn't simply important for these musical sex tools: It's a career imperative. Still, there's no one right way to do it, as proven by new releases from three veteran smooch-inducers--Tom Jones, Barry White and Madonna. The first attempts to update his image; the second sticks with the tried and true; and the third tones things down in the hope of heating up again.

Jones is not a man for whom subtlety means a great deal, as is made clear by the cover of his new Interscope Records effort, The Lead and How to Swing It: Standing beside a bikini-clad trollop in a construction helmet, he's pictured screaming as though he's tried to masturbate too soon after a vasectomy. The songs themselves are equally direct. Whether he's singing on a rocker, a dance track or a pseudoromantic ballad, he stampedes over the lyrics like a psychotic rhinoceros. Tori Amos, who joins him on the icky "I Wanna Get Back With You," counters his shouts with wispy crooning and winds up as roadkill.

Of course, Jones's bombastic approach has everything to do with the reasons his work from the Sixties continues to entertain; "What's New Pussycat?" is so perversely over the top that it exerts a twisted fascination. Unfortunately, most of Lead ignores these role models in favor of "Kiss," the Prince cover that was a comeback hit for Jones in 1988. Trevor Horn, who produced "Kiss," helps Jones turn "If I Only Knew" into a synthesized train wreck, while Euro-mavens Flood and Youth transform a trio of tracks into overly goofy dance-floor thumpers. But these tunes are masterpieces in comparison to two numbers produced by Teddy Riley. When Jones purrs "T.J.'s in the house" during the allegedly soulful "Something for Your Head," he seems as out of place as Newt Gingrich at a Ted Kennedy victory party. In many ways, Lead's bold wrongheadedness is preferable to a meek, quiet disaster, but that doesn't mean it will help you score.

Barry White knows better. On his latest A&M offering, The Icon Is Love, the unbelievably deep-voiced one hews to his original style, intermingling crooned come-ons with spoken raps that rumble like the voice of God in a particularly horny frame of mind. The result, of course, can seem a little nutty, and picturing White--a man so enormous that the word "corpulent" doesn't do him justice--actually doing the things he sings about is a guaranteed erection-deflater. Fortunately, White's entire catalogue is a tribute to the suspension of disbelief. He uses soulful grooves, a confident vocal tone and the wanton cooing of female background singers to create a passionate mood that he heightens to the point of glorious absurdity. In this context, lyrics such as "I wanna lick you, baby, kiss you/...I love it wet, girl, make me sweat until/I get off, babe" (from the frighteningly titled "There It Is") don't seem nearly as grotesque as they do on the printed page. Icon may border on soft-core pornography, but spinning it won't make you feel guilty in the morning.

The same can be said of Bedtime Stories, the latest Maverick/Sire release from former Dennis Rodman girl-toy Madonna--and that's a pleasant surprise, given that she seemed ready to allow her sexual obsessions to entice her into professional suicide. Then again, Madonna has never been accused of stupidity. As an entrepreneur, she realized that the snickering prompted by her photo book Sex and terrible films such as Body of Evidence (a laugh riot in which she screwed Willem Dafoe on a car covered with broken glass) was bad for business. What she needed was a hit-jammed recording that would play off her image without turning her into a cartoon. And Stories, whose track "Secret" is already her most popular single in five years, fills the bill.

Not that this is a great record; Madonna probably isn't capable of that. But Stories works because Madonna was smart enough to hire a cadre of industry heavyweights, including co-producer Babyface, to reshape her fuck fodder in a less threatening manner. The result is lyrically reminiscent of her early bubblegum hits, but slower, more leisurely. Few of the songs stand out, but that hardly matters. The album hangs together, pumping out a relaxed, consistent mid-tempo beat that's sensual without seeming exhibitionistic. In fact, Stories feels very postcoital--the aural equivalent of an after-boink cigarette.

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