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The Great Escape

Food FOODCD 14

Still gazing intently at the nation's navel, continue their tour of the British Zeitgeist begun on Modern Life Is Rubbish and developed further on Parklife. There's not, in all honesty, that much difference between the three, despite the sizeable steps in presentation: modern life, apparently, is still rubbish.

Musically, too, it's much the same round of parochial influences as before - Kinks, Small Faces, Madness, XTC - with impressive, clever-clever arrangements which occasionally collapse under the cumulative welter of detail. There's much to admire here: the string and horn arrangements which echo Burt Bacharach and Jamaican ska; the extra edge of jagged tenacity to Graham Coxon's guitar playing; Alex James's bass parts, roving around the rhythm like McCartney's more adventurous moments; and Albarn's keyboards, offering cute little commentaries on the songs' subjects. Lyrically, though, his propensity for facile lines roams ever more unchecked: if you thought the rhyming of Balzac and Prozac in "Country House" was a tad overcooked, wait till you hear "Mr Robinson's Quango", with its linking of hairpiece and herpes, and its inability to resist using the word "tango".

Ken Livingstone replaces Phil Daniels as Loveable Cockney Geezer In Residence, though his presence - droning dully through the dreary day of commuter "Ernold Same", a bit like John Peel on the first T. Rex LP, only minus the mole - speaks volumes generally about The Great Escape's take on our rubbish modern life. From the opening Stepford Wife- swapping account of suburban boredom, "Stereotypes", to the concluding lament for the soul of Corporate Man, "Yuko and Hiro", the album is a litany of tedious daily finds and dead-end lives punctuated by unfulfilling recourse to various modes of instant gratification.

There's little sense of light and shade about the picture, however: the bad guys - aristos, quangocrats, yuppies, businessmen - are all signposted as such, while the more laddish rogues - football hoolies, low-lifes and dullards - are still to blame. Even more tendentious is the double-standard of 's own position, in seeking to criticise the creeping corporatisation of modern life without once acknowledging its own place within that corporate culture. For something so rubbish, it continues to hold an obsessive fascination for them.

Gang of Four


When! WEN CD 003

The Gang of Four's comeback album makes for an interesting comparison with 's latest: the Gang, too, are convinced modern life is rubbish, but they focus on the scars of alienation with such furious concentration that there's no space left for caricature English whimsy. As before, they cut straight through to the nub of the matter: narcissism ("I Parade Myself"), telephone sex ("Unburden"), pornography ("Showtime, Valentine"), Oprah- style TV therapy ("I Absolve You").

The problem is, they're too good at alienation: Shrinkwrapped is as hard a listen as any I've encountered this year. The subjects of these songs aren't stereotypical characters, like in songs; indeed, they don't have any character as such, all shades of personality having been epitomised by the subject of "Sleepwalker", who describes himself as "an understudy for myself".

The music is, if anything, more uncompromising even than the lyrics, stretched taut between funk-rock bass and the guitar noise of Andy Gill (no relation), whose squeals teeter constantly on the verge of anarchy. It makes for a tightly-designed whole, but not one you're likely to want to hear too often.

Everybody's a social analyst this week, though compared to either of the above worldviews, Scatman John's lacks a certain rigour. You'll no doubt be familiar with the annoyingly catchy single "Scatman's World", wherein the babbling, be-hatted one offers vague one-world sentiments and scat-singing over a Euro-disco groove. Apart from three tracks exposing Scatman's roots as a jazz pianist, the album is basically the same thing writ long, if not large. "Song of Scatland" outlines his Utopian fantasy in greater detail, invoking "a land of love / where people have time to care", which sounds about as scarily undifferentiated as anything in the Gang of Four's worldview. The difference is that they'd find it horrifying, while dear old Scatman thinks it would be "a magical place". You pays your money ...

Indie compilations are increasingly prevalent on today's pop scene, as companies scramble to cut themselves a slice of the Brit-pop pie. Not just record companies, either: this 20-track offering boasts much the same line-up - , Supergrass, Cranberries, Radiohead, Elastica - as Shine To and The Best ... Album in the World ... Ever!, but does so in the service of something called the Holsten Indie Party, a desperate attempt to add groovy street-cred cachet to lager.

One wonders whether the groups realise this. After all, sponsorship in rock has become one of the thornier issues in the business, with bands as disparate as U2 and The Black Crowes rejecting the attempted corporate appropriation of their art. If anything, the case here is more problematic. Indie music, as an underground genre fast becoming mainstream, is in much the same position as rap in America; but while high-profile rappers such as Public Enemy and Ice Cube have objected to what they view as the brewers' targetting of young black rap fans, their British peers appear eager to clamber into bed with a company making the same play for their audience's pocket. It places an interesting stress on the term "indie", at the very least.

Taking its title from a Pet Sounds track not actually featured here, this is the soundtrack to last week's Brian Wilson documentary - a flawed programme in which the complete erasure of therapist Eugene Landy from the Wilson story echoes the disappearance of Trotskyites from old Stalinist photos. The intention, according to director Don Was, was to present the musicians' case for Wilson's claim on musical genius - to which end Was marshalled a top session crew to copy some of Brian's productions.

Despite Don's Midas touch, there's still something obviously wrong with Brian. He makes it through "Do It Again" on sheer determination, but on more fragile, testing material like "Caroline No" there are moments when he sounds a bit like your uncle trying out the karaoke after a few jars down the pub. The effect works better on a song like "Love and Mercy", where the frail edge lends weight to his naivete and distress, than on tricksier material like "Let the Wind Blow" and "Wonderful"; but though there are perfectly acceptable covers of "Melt Away" and "Til I Die", the LP still leaves the lingering impression that Brian Wilson's situation today is analogous to that of the post-Alzheimer De Kooning: a brilliant simplification of his art, or damaged genius?