ANDY GILL ON ALBUMS

'They have a much wider palette of styles than most of their peers, and the wit to blend them well'

Eels

Beautiful Freak

Dreamworks DRD 50001

The first release from David Geffen's new label inscribes a few new wrinkles on the dominant American rock style of the Nineties - grunge - but the general attitude remains pretty much the same. ' songwriter and frontman, the minimally named E, has described his songs as trying to "celebrate individuality in the face of depression", which is about as concise a description of Kurt Cobain's oeuvre as has yet been coined.

Like Cobain, the nerdish E sides with the oddball and the outsider. "Guest List" describes what it's like not to be one of the queue-jumping "beautiful people", while the title track offers a simple, sincere statement of affection for the eponymous freak. Crucially, though, the impotent anger of Nirvana has been replaced here by a more resigned fuddlement, as E calmly traces the effects of everyday dysfunction, and the concomitant need for numbing comforts in songs such as "Susan's House" and the single "Novocaine For The Soul". He is catchily persuasive about the state of the American psyche, even if at times he doth protest too much: with a rapidly growing reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, his claim, in "Flower", that "everyone is trying to bum me out" rather overstates his case for universal rejection.

E and his colleagues Butch (drums) and Tommy (bass) - clearly, there's no standing on ceremony for - have a much wider palette of musical styles than most of their grunge and lo-fi peers, and the wit to blend them well. In their hands, the ubiquitous soft/loud dynamic shifts of American "alternative" rock become more subtly effective, as with the plunking pixiephone (toy piano) and high harmonies riding the jazzy grunge groove of "Novocaine For The Soul". Elsewhere, small touches like the hint of French horn in "Beautiful Freak" and the choral sample in "Flower" help lift the songs above the everyday. Stardom surely beckons, though judging by E's attitude in "Rags To Rags", it won't make too much difference: "One day I'll come through my American Dream," he sings, "but it won't mean a fucking thing." Get ready, dude.

JAMES

Whiplash

Fontana

Back where they belong - ensconced in stadium-sized sound, with fully- formed songs, after the unfocused experiments of Wah Wah, James have managed to combine questing eclecticism with their natural anthemic inclinations on Whiplash. It's an impressive return to form, right from the dashing euphoria of the opener "Tomorrow", with only the occasional dip among the 11 tracks. The juddering guitars and earnest vocal of "Homeboy" provides the most direct reversion to basic U2-style uplift, but other songs pursue more interesting routes. The warped country approach of "Waltzing Along", the alienated glamour of "She's a Star", and the anti-American techno rant of "Go to The Bank" all offer intriguing variations on the James sound, although the dubby, trip-hop ambience of "Watering Hole" sits less comfortably with their style.

ORB

Orblivion

Island CID 8055

No surprises here, which, given the number and variety of sounds in Orb's chosen style, is something of an achievement. Rather more commercially oriented than their last couple of albums, Orblivion harks back to the earliest Orb outings, with big, thumping beats adding due propulsion to tracks such as the single "Toxygene".

The opening, "Delta Mk II" is typical. Starting with a brief snatch of the McCarthy HUAC hearings, it dives into the usual fluid blend of watery bleeps and flanged drum beats, dashing from speaker to speaker with mad abandon before settling into one of their reliable dub rhythms, embellished here and there with little flashes of jungle snare. The sheer density of sound is overwhelming, a 48-track stew in which attention shifts imperceptibly between the various elements. In their hands, the claims of using the mixing desk as another instrument surely reach their greatest justification. Water is an abiding presence, both as oceanic ambience and sparkling droplets, alongside thunder, tinkling glass, skidding cars, and various vocal samples, the most substantial being David Thewlis's bar-code rant from Naked. In short, it's exactly the kind of thing you expect from an Orb album, its quality as predictable as its eclecticism.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

When We Were Kings

Mercury 534 462-2

Of the dozens of soundtrack albums currently vying for your attention, this one stands proudly out simply by having a focus and cohesion the others lack. Using material recorded at the "African Woodstock" concert organised by Don King to accompany the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" bout in which Ali regained his crown from Foreman (still the promoter's greatest achievement), it features blasts of prime Seventies funk, blues and soul from the likes of BB King, James Brown and The Spinners, interspersed with native African chants and sundry proclamations from Ali and his morale- booster Bundini Brown.

It's virtually non-stop highlights, from Bill Withers' funky moralising on a medley of "Ain't No Sunshine" and "You", through BB's impassioned "Sweet Sixteen" and Brown's feisty and appropriate "The Payback", to the Jazz Crusaders' classic "Put It Where You Want It", all performed with the power and passion merited by the occasion. Of the three newly recorded tracks, the "Rumble in the Jungle" rap by the Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and Forte, is the best, spot on in style and attitude.

The most cogent lines, though, come from Bundini Brown: "I think Muhammad is a prophet... Anybody that love poor people and little people got to be a prophet. He was champion of the world, had a long table full of food, had a house for his mother and one for him. He told them to take it and shove it if he couldn't love his God - what you think he is, mister?"

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