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All You Can Eat

Warner Bros 9362-46034-2

"Maybe I'll ask her. No, maybe I won't. It may be disaster. Maybe it won't." Finally getting round to dealing openly with her sexuality after five albums, the world's most prominent lariat-lesbian treads all too tentatively on All You Can Eat. The ebullient twang of her earliest records is absent, and the torch-song swoon that replaced it seems dimmed and diffident.

On the first few tracks, it seems this may be a deliberate ploy, the album following the course of a romance from first tentative wonderings to what one presumes is eventual fulfillment; but even the later tracks seem strangely less than wholehearted, oddly joyless and overly cerebral. She may cajole a prospective lover to "Acquiesce", but nothing so definite appears to happen on her own part: she's too busy devising abstruse, baffling formulations like "the fruit of our repression is the fruit of freedom, too", and picking apart the ways of the heart.

Along the way, she's lost much of the promise of the torch-song style: there's expectation but no enthusiasm here, just a sluggishness that signally fails to summon up the languor of love. Inert, not erotic. Just as great a loss is the sureness of melody exhibited on songs such as "Constant Craving". Too often here, there's the feeling that immense natural talent is being squandered, casting around for a decent tune but never really alighting on anything more engaging than the simple see-saw melody of "You're OK". She and co-producer Ben Mink have tried to inject a little interest with the occasional unusual instrument or texture - E-bow, Urhu, various loops - but to little effect. These arrangements are efficient but unremarkable, with too little of real interest beyond her voice - and that, paradoxically, sounds like it's lost interest in its material just as it's getting personal.

Simply Red


EastWest 0630120692

This follow-up to the most successful British album of the decade is a big disappointment, despite the gentle excellence of the single "Fairground". An obvious number one on first hearing, that song's winsome charms - the understated Burundi rhythms, the floating vocal - are all the more apparent when set in the context of the album, which seems oddly undercooked and sketchy as a whole.

Certainly, by comparison with the strong material of the past two Simply Red albums, the songs on Life struggle to register as anything more definite than demos. And by the side of such previous straight-talking political statements as "She'll Have To Go", Mick Hucknall sounds positively mealy-mouthed here. "We have our problems," he muses in "Lives And Loves". "Is the whole world asking is it worth it?" Well, er, maybe yes, maybe no. Worse yet is "We're in This Together", whose title accurately signals the kind of bland anthem of global goodwill and eco-consciousness that just sits uselessly atop the world's problems like a cherry on a stale cake.

The arrangements, too, are mere watercolour dabs beside Hucknall's previous work, only accumulating a strong character on "So Beautiful", where the strings, sax and acoustic guitar conjure up an Astral Weeks mood; elsewhere, the wispy breaths of flute and sax and shy shimmers of keyboard rarely congeal into anything concrete. It all makes for a strangely insubstantial whole.

Former Doll By Doll singer Jackie Leven's remarkable return continues with this second solo effort, an object lesson in how to approach one's life and work with due nobility.

Though the quality dips sharply later in the 16 tracks, the opening quartet of songs is as emotionally affecting as anything I've experienced recently. "Young Male Suicide Blessed by Invisible Woman" and "Some Ancient Misty Morning" open the album in Caledonian Soul style, with ringing guitars and wistful pipes, before "Working Alone/ The Blessing" takes things to a more intimate level. The most moving thing I've heard all year, this track finds Leven offering a bucolic epiphany of understated power, capped by a poem on the same theme by the American writer James Wright.

Having caught us with a sucker-punch, Leven heaps on the emotion by bringing the pathos of the Exodus theme to "Leven's Lament", before - literally - pissing it all away with a whistling/urination reprise that piles on the poignancy. It's daring and self-deprecating, an acknowledgement of how the deep emotions felt in one's cups can be cauterised by commonplace events.

Blending the grain and attack of indie bands such as the Pixies with a structural sensibility closer to that of today's trip-hop artists, Garbage most resemble the late, lamented Curve: the singer Shirley Manson has something of Toni Halliday's ice-queen erotic appeal, while the rest of the band - Nirvana producer Butch Vig and a couple of his studio chums - have more ideas than ought naturally to be squeezed on to one debut album.

Texturally, their major gift lies in being able to forge appealing pop melodies out of angular, discordant sounds, a formula that fits Manson's dominatrix-doll persona perfectly. As befits a nominally indie outfit, there's a bitter streak of sullenness running through many of the songs - "Pour your misery down on me," as Manson sings on the single "Only Happy When It Rains" - but the sheer joy with which the group wield their battery of guitar effects lays a veneer of irony over such assumptions. There' s simply too much fun in these four-minute blocks of fuzz-tone and distortion to feel jaundiced for too long.

Using the Jim Morrison ceremonial declamation - "Is everybody in?" - as a prelude for his utterances on the "crystalline essences" of religion, Prince Be stretches patience some way beyond breaking point here. The opening track proper, "Downtown Venus", is OK, Deep Purple loop and all, but as early as "My Own Personal Gravity", his whiny imprecations have already grown to be annoying. Occupying a plateau of ecstasy presumably too rarefied for lesser mortals, Be's musings (sample: "Life, are you in my mind?") seem designed solely to import unnecessary obfuscating mystery to the more straightforward facts of life. A bliss too far, in other words.

Men swear at Menswear, and with good reason: loud and lippy but lacking musical substance, their slim portfolio of influences seems morbidly retro even by today's standards. Stretching from the generically Small Faces- esque ("I'll Manage Somehow") to the kind of Wire copy that makes Elastica's look original ("Daydreamer"), their self-conscious cockney-rock has little to offer beyond rote mentions of Hampstead and Camden Town and vocal impressions of Johnny Rotten and Paul Weller. At least, I hope they're just impressions. Unable to learn from the past, they are condemned to repeat it. This year's Secret Affair, I fear.