ALBUMS / Popped in, souled out: Andy Gill on Sting, Deacon Blue, Lenny Kravitz and Living Colour

STING

Ten Summoner's Tales

(A&M 540 075-2)

is at about the same position as Steely Dan were in their later years: you can still glimpse the genuine pop spirit there, but it's so submerged by a welter of jazz influences it's hardly recognisable any longer. Thankfully, Ten Summoner's Tales - the title is a pun on Sting's real name, Gordon Sumner - claws back some of the pop territory that had been largely abandoned on his previous solo outings, resulting in the most approachable of his post-Police works.

Not that he's completely given up smartypants strategies: 'Love Is Stronger Than Justice', a likeable country pastiche, wanders off into a desultory jazz piano coda at its close, and 'She's Too Good for Me' makes a dramatic swing from the jivy body of the song to a pseudo-classical middle eight. But though still prone to bouts of unnecessary embellishment, Sting's song-writing here is comparatively unencumbered by sophisticate exhibitionism.

'Heavy Cloud, No Rain' and 'It's Probably Me', for instance, are simple, one-idea songs, and all the better for it. Better still is 'Seven Days', its long, ruminative verses capped by a strong, rising chorus that ascends through the eponymous seven days in classic 'Stormy Monday' / 'Friday on My Mind' manner. It's to Sting's credit - and that of AOR producer extraordinaire Hugh Padgham - that the song ends up sounding less like an exercise than a hit.

DEACON BLUE

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing

(Columbia 473527)

DEACON Blue have drafted in the production team of Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold to jolly up their sound on Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, a belated jump on to a baggy bandwagon that lit out for the wasteland round about the time of the last Happy Mondays album.

To give them their due, O&O seem baffled by Deacon Blue's mundanity, and seem to settle for an approximation of concert acoustics on many songs. The first track, 'Your Town', is an obvious set-opener, a galloping protest number with big, resonant guitars, breathy harmonies, and Ricky Ross's voice muffled and distant. It's the kind of hearty, unexceptional jock-rock that has stadiums reeling the world over.

They stick fairly close to this formula throughout, taking a real risk only with 'Last Night I Dreamed of Henry Thomas', which, with its odd, miasmic arrangement and sounds lurking and looming out of the murk, is by far the most interesting thing here. Immediately after, the LP closes with a reversion to anthemic breast-beating mode. Whatever they're saying, they're saying nothing new.

LENNY KRAVITZ

Are You Gonna Go My Way

(Virgin America CDVUS 60)

THE PROBLEM with retro-rock is knowing which strand of rock history to revive. Judging by the beefy boogie of his third album's title-track, Lenny's tour of earlier musical eras has brought him to Humble Pie, which is not the route one hoped he'd take.

Likewise, after the tidily crafted music of his first two LPs, the decision to make Are You Gonna Go My Way more of a band album looks like a mistake: whipping up an authentic storm takes the kind of purpose and aesthetic focus a dilettante such as Kravitz lacks. He's the epitome of the Jack Of All Trades, an omni-talented craftsman whose only true moment of mastery came with the smooth soul pastiche 'It Ain't Over Till It's Over'.

There is little here to compare with that song - the closest he gets is the over-produced psychedelic ballad 'Believe'. Trying to snag a significant lyric, too, is like trying to pin down fog: Lenny is clearly of the school that believes true pop genius resides in the endless re-configuration of a small selection of cliches, which he throws together with little zest. It's like a fading 10th-generation photocopy of real pop.

LIVING COLOUR

Stain

(Epic 472856)

THE INNER sleeve of Stain includes more thanks to equipment firms and business associates than information about the songs, which is about right: this album is for the benefit of fellow musos rather than fans, designed to showcase the band's virtuosity rather than make an ear-pleasing sound.

They state as much with the opener 'Go Away', deliberately unlovable heavy riffing rent asunder by another of Vernon Reid's John McLaughlin-esque guitar solos. 'Mind Your Own Business' - are you getting the idea? - takes the principle a bit further, with abrupt, pointless changes in tempo between verse and chorus.

There's plenty more ponderous bluster and ugly 10-league bootstomp riffing here, with the most interesting bits reduced to non sequitur fragments, like the sample-loop at the heart of 'WTFF', which paradoxically gets less interesting the more the band add to it. 'Hemp', a poem narrated by one Andrew Fairley, has a pleasant ghostly synth backing, but it sounds token, a glimpse of light intruding on the dark tunnel they're mining so assiduously.

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