ALBUMS / A kitsch you want to scratch: Wendy James gets serious, James Brown gets old: Andy Gill on new releases

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The Independent Culture

Now Ain't the Time for Your Tears

(MCA MCD 10800)

APART from the title, which comes from Dylan's 'Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll', all the material on Wendy James's solo album is written by Elvis Costello, either solo or with his wife Cait O'Riordan. This is obvious from the off: you can't help imagining Costello singing 'This is a Test', that surly snarl negotiating that tortuous, angular melody - especially since James herself is gloriously ill-equipped for the job, stumbling awkwardly round the phrases and experiencing great difficulty in hitting and holding the right notes throughout.

The result could be a cult kitsch classic; its combination of lucid articulacy and vocal ineptitude makes compelling listening. 'London's Brilliant' is a portrait of decaying youth culture which, on an EC album, would have stung; but Wendy's ranting just points up the thigh-slap quotient of lines like 'London's brilliant when it's raining / Everybody's moaning and complaining'. After a few tracks, you wonder: Has Elvis heard this? How did he react?

It could, of course, be a deliberate move on Costello's part: there's an undertow of revulsion in these songs for pop culture, for its trivialities, venalities, immaturity and tackiness, which finds its perfect voice in James's shortcomings. How on earth, you wonder, did she manage to sing 'Puppet Girl', a narrative so close to home - about a manipulated sex-object pop singer - that it's virtually squatting in her outside loo?


Universal James

(Scotti Bros 514 329-2)

A JUDICIOUS blend of tracks written and produced by either Brown himself, Soul II Soul's Jazzie B, or Clivilles & Cole, Universal James is certainly much better than Brown's first post-jail album, Love Over-Due. Here, at least, the other guys are trying, even if James isn't sure.

The C&C track that opens the LP, 'Can't Get Any Harder', is a reasonable facsimile of the classic JB style, aping its clipped guitar and fatback bass rather better than the two uptempo tracks Brown himself delivers, which despite titles that echo earlier grooves - 'Everybody's Got A Thang' and 'Make It Funky 2000' - are dogged by a sluggishness that in earlier days would have been whipped into better shape.

The Jazzie B tracks that make up the bulk of the record are more problematic. 'Watch Me' is typical: it has the staccato motion of a JB track, but the only element with any real fire is Brown's yelps and grunts, and they're corralled in the too-verdant pastures of the production. It's the same story elsewhere: the arrangements and vocals are fine, but they seem to belong to different versions.


Other Voices / Other Rooms

(MCA MCD 10796)

THIS new album collects together 17 songs by her favourite composers, from Woody Guthrie ('Do Re Mi') to Tom Paxton ('Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound'), all of whom are afforded photos alongside their credits, except where the songs are traditional or very old. Legendary names such as Chet Atkins and Odetta also crop up among the musicians, none more notable than Dylan, who adds his trademark harmonica to 'Boots of Spanish Leather', during which Griffith's cutesy warble modulates to a Dylanesque wheeze at appropriate points, as if her vocal cords were drawn magnetically to his definitive reading.

The LP also marks a return to her early producer Jim Rooney, and to the simplicities of au naturel country/folk production after an unsuccessful liaison with the folk-pop airbrushers Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke, best known for their work with Tanita Tikaram. The result is refined, well-mannered, not overbearing in the slightest, and full of long dusty roads, borderlines, ramblin', gamblin', and enough place- names to stock a medium-sized gazetteer.


Stairways to Heaven

(Vertigo 514 552-2)

CHEERILY acceptable as a one- off novelty, as in the Rolf Harris version recently in the charts, this collection of 22 Australian versions of 'Stairway To Heaven' swiftly palls, especially since most were recorded by one man, the arranger Chris Harriott.

Harriott's stylistic vocabulary is impressive - he slips smoothly from show-tune style to bluegrass hoedown, from Vegas-era Elvis to opera, from early Beatles to Sgt Pepper, from B-52s to Billy Idol, from soft-soul shuffle to faux- macho metal - and before it grows too tedious, a couple of the versions besides Rolf's hit the funnybone. The Australian Doors Show's is outstanding, its shrieks and mutterings perfectly in line with the melodramatic pretension of the song.