ALBUMS / Dark night of the soul boy: Andy Gill on flagellants, honest rockers, country girls and smoochers

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TEARS FOR FEARS

Elemental

(Mercury 514875-2)

NOW a lone Tear - or is it Fear? - since the departure of Curt Smith, Roland Orzabal makes his own contribution to the Seventies revival by offering a dose of good old-fashioned rock star angst. Orzabal's always favoured a spot of soul-baring in his songs, but he's rarely felt as uncomfortable as this.

The album starts well, but swiftly enters flagellant mode, and ultimately it's hard to sympathise with a millionaire who sings 'And on the crucifix his mother made / Hangs one more martyr to the hit parade'.

Elemental is a patchwork quilt of Sixties-flavoured post-modern pop that reaches its climax in 'Brian Wilson Said', an ornate Beach Boys pastiche that aims for 'Surf's Up' but hits somewhat lower, around the 10cc mark. Like them, he's too often hoist by his own cleverness, lyrical honesty stranded by the ironic distance in his music.

PAUL WESTERBERG

14 Songs

(Sire/Reprise 9362-45255-2)

PAUL WESTERBERG also looks to classic rock and pop for inspiration, but structurally rather than texturally. The approach on 14 Songs is as direct as the title, the feel rough and ready, but the songs lock, endorphin-like, into familiar receptors, evoking the traditional pleasures of well-crafted tunes and words.

When he does tart his songs up, it's usually with the cheap glamour of classic Stones raunch or punk howl, as in the days when he fronted the Replacements: 14 Songs follows their format of rowdy rockers interspersed with more wistful reflections on life and love.

He can be touchingly tender when necessary, but he's retained his way with a cutting phrase despite having split from band, wife and booze since the last Replacements album. Slashing away with chipper good humour at plastic surgery victims and those who don't share his ambivalent attitude to success, he has the self-assurance of the truly disinterested, a stance that is unlikely to alter if he finally reaches the wider audience he deserves.

MARIA McKEE

You Gotta Sin to Get Saved

(Geffen GED 24508)

IN ONE of the oddest career moves of recent times, Maria McKee here attempts to re-cast herself as a soul diva, just as the New Country boom moves into mega-grossing mode. There are still a few songs here that cleave to the Nashville option, but her recent lengthy sojourn in Dublin has left her marked by the obsessive devotion to Van The Man that is apparently now a prerequisite for residence in the Emerald Isle.

She covers a couple of Morrison songs, 'My Lonely Sad Eyes' and the romantic whirl of 'The Way Young Lovers Do', but like everyone else who tries, she's bounded by Van's definitive phrasing and arrangements. Her wider soul ambitions are most clearly signalled - and most exposed - on her big soul production numbers 'I Forgive You' and 'Why Wasn't I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet)'. The latter, a country-soul outing with the Memphis Horns, plumbs southern-soul deeps that rather swamp her voice, its tart, bitter flavour at odds with the rich dark browns of the arrangement.

JOHNNY GILL

Provocative

(Motown 530 206-2)

LUTHER VANDROSS

Never Let Me Go

(Epic 473598 2)

ROMANTIC soul is one of the few genres that fit the extra length afforded by CD: Johnny Gill's second solo album follows the seduction trajectory exactly, starting all disco- groovy and getting progressively more intimate and impassioned. The booklet photo has the one-time New Edition child star looking sensitive and distracted, and despite the slightly risque nature of the title- track, he's clearly being groomed to be more of a gentleman than Prince or his former colleague Bobby Brown. When he finally gets back to the boudoir, he's a considerate boy, enquiring 'Tell Me How U Want It' like a proper lurrve-man, as the ballad develops an unmistakable undulating groove.

Sadly, the success of Gill's pairing with the Jam & Lewis production machine is not repeated on Luther Vandross's Marcus Miller-produced album, a bout of stifling professionalism in which egos are massaged with preposterous proliferations of production and arrangement credits and nobody recognises that the actual songs are dried-up husks.

A seasoned balladeer like Luther presumably knows all the moves backwards, which may be why the album seems to be programmed in reverse, starting with full-blown smoochers and petering out with a few perfunctory jabs at the dancefloor, before an utterly turgid romantic medley brings everything grinding to a halt. So to speak.

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