ALBUMS / And the bride came too: Andy Gill on the latest from Bowie, Sugar, Nicky Holland and a tribute to Curtis Mayfield

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DAVID BOWIE

Black Tie / White Noise

(Savage 74321 13697 2)

AT THE heart of Black Tie / White Noise is a great album that harks back through Bowie's career, most successfully to the Euro-funk drive of Station To Station. But sadly, it's a great album spoilt by inordinate length, over- egged with unnecessary cover versions, remixes and 'bonus' tracks which drag on its momentum.

These, though, are distractions from the meat of the matter, a series of infectious Euro-funk workouts on which the Art Ensemble Of Chicago's lab-coated trumpeter Lester Bowie (no relation) is the real star, dashing off a series of thrilling runs on several of the tracks. 'Pallas Athena' illustrates best the overall theme suggested by the album's title - what the press release calls 'the black and white sides of one's thinking': taut funk underscored with a bleak Heroesque wash of strings and razored by horn solos from both Bowies.

The album opens with 'The Wedding', a carillon of bells leading into a sluggish rhythm over which Bowie's sax adds vaguely Arabic tints; it reappears later in a vocal version that follows Hello] magazine and Brian Eno in trying to elevate his wedding to a significant modern event. 'You've Been Around' is the start of the album proper, though, a striding funk number acknowledging Bowie's multi-faceted career in the sly reference to 'ch-ch-ch-changes'. The rest of the album reads like a series of glosses on that career: the title-track is distinctly Young and American, while the urbane dystopia of the single 'Jump They Say' applies the Station to Station feel to a recession-era mood. There are lapses of judgement - the spoken lines in 'Miracle Goodnight', his one concession to rap, sound like David Niven hanging with the homeboys - but in general Bowie's touch here is surer than at any time since the late Seventies.

SUGAR

Beaster

(Creation CRECD 153)

SOMETHING of a sidetrack from the indie pop-metal of last year's Copper Blue, this is a six-track mini-album packing a concentrated emotional wallop, with Bob Mould returning to the wracked introspection of the later Husker Du, his original thrash-punk trio. As with that group, his voice is buried deep in the mix here, hemmed in by huge walls of guitar noise. Mould has always been a tangled mess of raw nerves, and you can sense his reluctant need to bare his soul in the way his vocals struggle for their space. If it weren't for the lyric sheet, it would be virtually impossible to understand a song like 'Judas Cradle'; even with one it's no simple matter. Suffice to say that Mould has a capacity for self-pity every bit the equal of Morrissey's.

Beaster follows the progress of a collapsing relationship and the subsequent recriminations, hewn from five- or six-minute slabs of distorted guitar. Mould is one of the architectonic geniuses of modern rock guitar - some say he's single-handedly responsible for the rise of grunge, though that's a heavy albatross to hang around anyone's neck - and this is some of his best work. It's a well-paced catharsis, rising to a pitch of almost unbearable ferocity on 'J C Auto' before the Brian Wilson-style resolution of 'Walking Away', where Mould's layered vocal harmonies finally displace the guitars, as if the album has been a titanic struggle for him to find his voice.

NICKY HOLLAND

Nicky Holland

(Epic EPC 469484 2)

SLEEVE namechecks for heavy-hitter producers like Don Was and Hugh Padgham suggest a more than ephemeral talent - as do the backroom contributions made by former Ravishing Beauty Nicky Holland to records by Cyndi Lauper, Tears for Fears, Celine Dion and Oleta Adams, with all of whom (as, also, with Bacharach's old partner Hal David) she has co-written songs.

This, her solo debut, is a thoughtful and sophisticated work which suggests Holland may be a Carole King for the Nineties, a songwriter of proven accomplishment who knows how best to balance a tricky lyric on a simple but effective piano vamp.

The album begins with a short prelude of piano and strings setting a tone of expectant awakening, a dawn- over-the-city feel that swoops down into the streets with the subdued Steely Dan-style horns of 'Ladykiller'. It's an opening sequence that bears effective witness to her experience scoring movies for John Hughes, just as the fragile jazz shadings of 'Face of the Moon' and 'The Night We Never Met' reflect her cocktail- lounge pianist background. An impressive debut.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield

(Shanachie 9004)

FOR ONCE, a benefit album with a clear and specific focus. Curtis Mayfield was badly injured when a lighting rig fell on him at a gig, and is now quadraplegic, confined to a wheelchair; as if that weren't appalling enough, he and his family were then made homeless when their house burnt down. Hence this album of covers of Mayfield songs, mostly from his Impressions days, by artists as various as Bunny Wailer (a perfect reggae transmutation of 'I Gotta Keep On Moving'), Huey Lewis & The News, Michael Hill & Vernon Reid and his old Impressions partner Jerry Butler.

Nobody attempts 'Move On Up', and there's nothing from the landmark soul-protest album Back To the World, but otherwise most of the classic Mayfield bases, songs like 'Gypsy Woman' and 'Um Um Um Um Um Um', are covered. His spiritual standard, 'People Get Ready', gets a sympathetic instrumental treatment from alto sax wizard David Sanborn and his son Jonathan, but the standout track is surely blue-eyed soulman Delbert McClinton's impassioned version of 'He Will Break Your Heart'. It's a fine collection.

(Photograph omitted)

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