ALBUMS / The road to Hatfield

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BILLY JOEL

River Of Dreams

(Columbia COL 473872 2)

ON his last LP, 1989's Storm Front, Billy Joel attempted a potted four- minute history of global unrest with 'We Didn't Start The Fire'. Perhaps emboldened by its success, he now offers us 'a portrait of his life in ten new songs'; may the saints preserve us.

From the evidence of River Of Dreams, Billy's view of the world seems to be, in so many words, that it's a terrible place really, but bearable if you manage to snare yourself a fantastic-looking model to live with. Which may be true, though it clearly hasn't made Billy any the happier, judging by 'No Man's Land', an exercise in Springsteenian dystopian propaganda, and '2000 Years', an unloveably pompous piece in which, if I read it correctly, the entire course of Christianity leads to him and Christie Brinkley getting it on.

Away from such theological matters, Billy demonstrates an affection for ELO-style bombast ('The Great Wall Of China') and absurd pomp-metal posturing, the latter spoiling what is actually a quite reasonable call for reasonableness on 'Shades Of Grey'. Perhaps Billy's being sardonic here, setting the pomp-metal style's imperial certitude against itself. Whatever, it simply sounds silly. Elsewhere, the title-track offers a faux-gospel account of Billy's questing nature ('I go walking in my sleep / Through the jungle of doubt / To a river so deep'), while 'Blonde Over Blue' and 'Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)' are couched in show-tune terms and delivery that suggest Michael Ball will be singing them sooner rather than later. Which is all well and good, but as a grand design River Of Dreams simply doesn't carry much weight in its troubled-man cliches. How sad it must be to finally make your Big Statement and find that it's this banal. Chilling, really.

THE JULIANA HATFIELD

THREE

Become What You Are

(Mammoth/EastWest 4509-93529-2)

PREVIOUSLY best known as the bassist on the Lemonheads' career- turning It's A Shame About Ray album, Juliana Hatfield here shows herself to be the most tuneful and talented of the current crop of grunge-maidens, with an ear for a blatant hook, blatantly repeated, and almost as much of a pallor to her vocals as Suzanne Vega - though there's a twist of attitude livening up the ennui of 'Feelin' Massachusetts' and the lusty pubescent-party exuberance of 'Spin The Bottle', one of a clutch of songs featuring a smart line in ambiguous girly-pop angst.

'My Sister' is straightforward, almost classic Go-Gos / Bangles-style pop, with an ironic sassiness to its account of sibling rivalry and affection, while 'Supermodels', probably the album's strongest track, begins by excoriating its subject ('The highest-paid piece of ass / You know it's not gonna last / Those magazines end up in the trash') but concludes with an admission that, yes, ultimately she'd like to swap places.

This sense of rebelliousness tempered with realism is her welcome contribution to the grunge aesthetic; when she sings 'I Got No Idols', it's more a statement of personal need than a splenetic attack on the celebrity system, just an admission that she refuses to follow such beacons slavishly. Which, for a future star, is a less contradictory position to start from than most, I suppose.

JANE SIBERRY

When I Was A Boy

(Reprise 7599-26824-2)

JANE Siberry's is a less pop-oriented agenda than Juliana Hatfield's, and with few exceptions, the songs on When I Was A Boy follow a dreamlike course appropriate to her subject matter, which is generally the rarefied apprehension of her emotions. Accordingly, there's a meandering, extempore feel to much of the LP, with several songs having the texture of buffed-up improvisation - particularly 'The Vigil (The Sea)', where muted found-sounds make chaotic intrusions into her reverie. But where the pieces meet a more concrete song- structure halfway, as on the duet with kd lang, 'Calling All Angels', the results can be quite gorgeous.

'Temple' opens the album with a watercolour mood, the song staining its way discreetly into one's consciousness. It's no surprise to find Eno involved with it - as he is also on 'Sail Across The Water', though on that track the pronounced swell of the chorus is out of equilibrium with the subtler intimations of the verses. There are some obvious models for certain songs - Siberry's Joni Mitchell-esque inflections on 'Love Is Everything' have the fragility of tissue, while 'An Angel Stepped Down' could have stepped down from a Laurie Anderson album - though the funk-folk of 'All The Candles In The World', with Robert Ahwai's marvellous bass pulsing the song along like a motor, is a welcome break from what might otherwise be a too soporifically insubstantial album. A points victory rather than a knockout.

NINA SIMONE

A Single Woman

(Elektra 7559-61503-2)

HAS Nina Simone, as producer Andre Fischer claims, 'become richer and more expressive with time'? And if so, why does he feel the need to swamp her voice by ladling the soupiest of strings all over this album?

A Single Woman marks the one- time soul-jazz queen's first release since her career was resuscitated by that television advertisement application of 'My Baby Just Cares For Me', but this is a far cry indeed from those 1959 roots. There's an excess of poorly chosen Rod McKuen songs, and Simone's singing seems erratic and eccentric here. Unlike, say, Billie Holliday, whose voice acquired a patina of poignance on her creaky later work, Simone is too spiky to age quite that gracefully. Most of the album is just borderline excruciating, but when she's wobbling through McKuen's chestnut 'Love's Been Good To Me', she sounds like the jazz equivalent of Molly Parkin.

(Photograph omitted)

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