ALBUMS / And the last shall be first

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THE PRETENDERS

Last of the Independents

(WEA 4509-95822-2)

CHRISSIE Hynde has spent the last few years networking with rockers old (Dylan, UB40, INXS, Mick Ronson) and new (Suede, Urge, Overkill), and even with ethno-ambient-house outfit Moodswings. This has clearly had an effect: the new album displays a healthy variation on the classic Pretenders format, a process aided by the employment of several different drummers and bassists. The result is the best Pretenders record for about a decade, one on which rock drive beds down with pop fun to lascivious effect.

'Hollywood Perfume' opens the album, with rock'n'roll dreams intact, then it's a smooth slide through the jangle-rocker 'Night in My Veins' and 'Money Talk', a socially aware updating of 'Money' which has the singer begging, 'Money, please talk to me]' So far, it's lightweight stuff, but that changes with '977', a piano ballad featuring Hynde sketching a complex masochistic relationship: 'He hit me with his belt / His tears were all I felt . . . Then I saw my baby cry / And knew that he loved me.' It's not often that this kind of subject can be dealt with in such ambiguous terms, and it shows how Hynde has survived Greatest Hit-hood with creative bottle intact. But then, she's nobody's victim, as 'I'm a Mother' shows: a feisty, matriarchal anthem bereft of self-pity.

THE AUTEURS

Now I'm a Cowboy

(Hut / Virgin CDHUT 16)

STRONGER, more self-assured and - if it's possible - more sneeringly sardonic even than their New Wave debut, Now I'm a Cowboy finds head Auteur Luke Haines still transfixed by the lure and horror of celebrity. Whether musing over the passing of a star in 'Lenny Valentino' or capturing the sublime vacuity of the Hello] world in 'New French Girlfriend', you're always aware of a twinge of jealousy rankling his contempt. Indeed, while the title 'Upper Classes' might signify all manner of vitriolic calumny in less subtle hands, here it tells of a lower-class Bohemian parasitically secreting himself into the Tatler world as a Ra house guest. More Anthony Powell than Clash, certainly, but there are already far too many doing the Clash.

There's a greater confidence about the music, too. Rockier than the debut, it's a more cultured variant on the classic English whiteboy sound of the Only Ones, with James Banbury's cello adding a tarnished grandeur to some songs, and Haines's multi-tracked guitars tracing tart layers of irony and spite. Few, though, are safe from his omnidirectional cynicism - the New York Bohemian life gets done to a turn in 'Chinese Bakery' - so it's no surprise that by the climactic 'Life Classes / Life Model', Haines is looking inwards, attempting to determine just what is revealed in an artwork: the artist, or the artist's model?

TRAFFIC

Far from Home

(Virgin CDV 2727)

THE TREMENDOUS disappointment one feels with the opening bars of 'Riding Home', a neutered funk-pop item in the Phil Collins mould which ushers in Far from Home, is in part due to the expectations raised by its claim to being a new Traffic album. Of the original quartet, Chris Wood is dead, and Dave Mason has for some reason been deemed persona non grata in this resurrected version of the band, which leaves just the core of Jim Capaldi on drums and backing vocals, and Steve Winwood on everything else.

The result, not surprisingly, is more a continuation of the last Winwood solo album than a Traffic album as such. Winwood, of course, is a superb organist and guitarist, and one of this country's most naturally gifted singers; but, with him playing everything, there's none of the interplay which made Traffic hum, no happy accidents to disturb the unflagging tedium of songs like 'Far from Home' and 'Nowhere Is Their Freedom'. And while the old Traffic were always their own band, this one draws more on outside influences - 'Some Kinda Woman' borrows from War's 'Low Rider', while the album's closing instrumental 'Mozambique' appears to be inhabited by a race not unlike Santana. Far from Home indeed.

SONIC YOUTH

Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star

(Geffen GED 24632)

WITH Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, Sonic Youth have halted the refining process which was the most notable thing about 1992's Dirty. This is more unorthodox, more faithful to the garage in their soul, though hardly more appealing.

'Winner's Blues' is a typically obtuse choice of opener, an acoustic folk-blues of winsome aspect swiftly replaced by the more familiar spiky greyness of the desultorily lustful 'Bull in the Heather'. The wibbly garage psychedelia of 'Starfield Road', sort of a cross between the Seeds and Electric Prunes, makes a virtue of raging crudity, while the spooky, brooding 'Skink' - named after the roadkill-eating recluse of Carl Hiaasen's Double Whammy - has the dark pull of quicksand.

So it continues, drifting between atonal repetition, cumbersome grunge and quiet menace, often in the same song. It's as if they can't figure out how to develop songs without stopping and doing something completely different, then claiming the mismatched parts as sections of the same song. Like Yes or ELP, but with avant-garde rather than classical pretensions, and a more corrosive line in screechy guitar noise. Their shamateurist crudeness aims to give their songs the atavistic vitality of cave paintings; sleeve-note references to 'arc-weld' and 'myth-science-art' point to the influence of Neil Young and Sun Ra. Both, though, rely heavily on an almost nave faith to power their music, something anathema to the Youth, whose rantings rarely break their veneer of Big Apple cool. As a result, the music has more attitude than atavism.

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