Album Reviews

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A double-CD of drum 'n' bass? No, no, Mr , you' re too generous. Way too generous - even though the entire package only stretches to 12 tracks. But what gargantuan tracks: "Timeless" itself clocks in at a whopping 21 minutes, and few of the others come in short of seven or eight minutes. Perhaps it's the sheer number of beats involved per track, but they all seem far, far longer than that, an eternity of stuttering snares and hissing hi-hats. Am I missing something here?

Having enjoyed the healthy diversity of musical strategies employed on compilations such as Routes From The Jungle, I confess myself baffled by the sameness of Timeless, which is like a particularly dull ambient/ trance album with schizophrenically hyperactive drums. Track after track follows the same course, disguising its ultimate intentions behind a curtain of ambient tones and string pads, before the drums come dashing in a minute or two into the proceedings. The tension between the ethereal backdrop and the frantic percussion is initially interesting but soon palls, especially the fourth or fifth track along; and compared to many other jungle/drum 'n' bass pieces, there seems precious little here beyond that primary tension: an occasional cry of "Jah!", a smattering of jazzy guitar vamps, a few bird samples and wave noises, and most tediously of all, the same kind of dull female Brit-soul cooings we've come to expect from every other sequencing sub-genre this isle has thrown up.

In the rush to acclaim as the "first superstar of jungle", nobody seems to have paused to assess what lies behind this status, which is a simple matter of character. As with the overrated Aphex Twin, character in the faceless computer-music field comes not from any inherent musical value, but from whatever flimsy PR handle can be grasped by a grateful music press desperate to find a Next Big Thing, or just a Thing. In the Aphex Twin's case, it's his army-surplus tank; in 's case, his gold teeth. Judging by Timeless, however, it's a case of the Emperor's New Gold Teeth.

Gavin Friday

Shag Tobacco

Island CID 8036

On Shag Tobacco, Gavin Friday charts a demi-monde whose physical locale may be Dublin, but whose imagination takes in a wider, more European aspect. James Joyce would understand, I'm sure.

Couched in musical terms of cabaret and late-night cafe, the album traces both strict hetero sensibilities (the lusty "Little Black Dress") and more polymorphously perverse attitudes, as in the transsexual chanson "Dolls", wherein "it's time for Eve to put Adam to sleep". Friday's long- time colleague Maurice Seezer adds a little dockside decadence to the latter with a gentle wheeze of accordion, while Bono and Edge buff up the harmonies of the former; elsewhere, a clarinet brings a touch of mannered sleaze to the queenly "Mr Pussy".

The range of music is certainly impressive, but it's Friday's lyrical apprehension of himself that comes across most strongly. In "Caruso", he uses a scattershot series of cultural references to illustrate the song's contention that "I'm not myself today": this is a life lived through vicarious images, populated by fictions and infatuations which, he subsequently realises (in "My 20th Century"), have betrayed him, most notably the great myths of rock'n'roll. Despite this realisation, he opts to continue on his chosen route: clearly, destiny cannot be denied.

Compared to Ultramarine's previous records, in particular the Canterbury Sound revisionism and folkie grooves of 1993's United Kingdoms, this is a huge disappointment. Bel Air seems stretched between the familiar and the formless, an uncomfortable place indeed: too many of the 17 tracks employ the same familiar burbling, squelchy synth tones of their earlier work, and huge expanses of the album have only the vaguest notion of song structure holding them together.

It's okay for a track or two - the cool-jazz keyboards, lazy double bass and vibes of "Welcome" and "Buena Vista" are enjoyable enough - but beyond this, it all seems just so much syncopated sample-chatter. The application of Pooka vocalists Sharon & Natasha on a few tracks, too, is less effective than the last album's use of Robert Wyatt's weary tones, while the lyrical slant of tracks like "Citizen" - some drivel about letting go of your ego - suggests they may be desperately playing to the airhead-hippie end of the techno gallery. They're capable of so much more than this.

If you liked the Pink Floyd flashing LED, you'll love the packaging on this double-CD of old Pet Shop Boys' B-sides and out-takes, which reinvents the Stones' Satanic Majesties wheel with a pseudo-3D lenticular image that enables Chris to turn into Neil at the twitch of an eyebrow.

Unfortunately, the package rather overstates the case for the album itself, which, despite optimistic claims on experimentation, is pretty routine fare for the most part - but then, if these tracks were more interesting, they'd have been A-sides rather than flips. The only real candidates for that here are the droll "Miserablism", chirpy "Paninaro" - which of course has now been released as such - and anthemic "Shameless", their spot-on survey of the desperately famous: "We have no integrity, we're ready to crawl, to obtain celebrity we'll do anything at all."

In general, the album gets shakier as their urge to experiment leads them into less appropriate areas: the latter half of the second disc dips precipitously with failed experiments like the Brecht-Weill and Noel Coward covers "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" and "If Love Were All", and "Decadence", the theme to a Steven Berkoff film. Mercifully for them, the film itself is so awful that compared to it, the song can't help but seem like a stroke of genius.

Most of the first batch of releases on Stone (Pearl Jam) Gossard's new Loosegroove label involve fairly predictable runs through familiar Nineties territory: grunge, of course; Primus-style punk-funk; a touch of rap. Then there's this, the most satisfying of the half-dozen albums, a largely instrumental affair which recalls the heyday of art/jazz-rock combos such as King Crimson and especially Weather Report. Opening with a juddering blend of funk and samples called simply "Shag", the Critters slip into what must be more like their live style with "Kickstand Hog", in which elastic double-bass and a crisp jazz backbeat underscore the mirror-echoes of Nalgas Sin Carne's raspy saxitar (a sax treated to sound like an overloaded, heavily distorted guitar).

More Weather Report-flavoured ruminations follow with "Critters Theme" and the sax arabesques of "Fretless Nostril", though there's something of the spirit of James White's Contortions to their playing, an urge to wildness which settles them more firmly on the rock side of the jazz/rock equation. "Los Lobos" is the big finale, with radio interference adding its own tarnish to a loop-collage which suddenly, several minutes in, grows rhythm section muscles before getting up and strolling off in another, spookier, direction. Recommended for mysterious travellers everywhere.

Jane Siberry's drift Joni Mitchell-wards continues with this album of languid, summery folk-jazz, on which double bass, flugelhorn and a few limpid piano chords sketch in the vaguest of outlines for her lyrical reflections. The title-track is typically insubstantial: it floats in gently, hovers awhile, then floats away, leaving little trace behind.

As the album progresses, so her words drifts even freer of their moorings, into uncharted waters where meaning is diluted into mere sound. "Begat Begat (Spring Is Coming)", for instance, features tootling cyclical horns over which Siberry talks in tongues, apparently trying on Van Morrison's pantheist ramblings for size. But even this seems restrained at the side of the climactic "Oh My My", a 20-minute piece complete with spoken sections, heady swirls of sitar and children singing "Puff The Magic Dragon".