ANDY GILL ON ALBUMS

Undoubtedly headed for bigger things than the parochial scale of Britpop tends to allow, Reef have taken a quantum jump beyond their 1995 debut with this second album without betraying any of the influences upon which their style is built - but, alas, without broadening them significantly.

Glow sticks closely to the strutting funk- and gospel-inflected rock of early-1970s Stones and Free (from which their name was anagramatically derived), though they sound more like the Black Crowes, their contemporaries, than either British outfit. Gary Stringer's gruff, hairy-chested vocals may recall Free's Paul Rodgers, but Crowes's singer Chris Robinson seems a more likely template for much of this album. Why else choose as producer George Drakoulias, who helmed the Crowes' classic Southern Harmony and Musical Companion?

The single "Put Your Hands" is typical of the Reef sound. Raw-boned and rugged, with gospel-flavoured backing vocals, it's little more than a Stonesy funk riff dragooned into more substantial service, rather in the manner of Primal Scream's Memphis period. Elsewhere, the Mick 'n' Keef formula of maracas and rhythm guitar holds down the groove of "Don't You Like It", while bassist Jack Bessant tries out a few Andy Fraser-styled runs - one of the few times that lead lines of flamboyance are involved.

For all Reef's ambition, their muscular take on the glam-infused Seventies hard-rock style is all a bit plumber's-matey, and can get weary over the course of an album. Instead of careful embellishment, they invariably opt for elongation, with tracks such as anthemic slowie "Consideration" spoilt by the addition of a coda that stretches the song from imposing to ponderous. Not that such niceties should hinder them overly; after the scorched-earth slackness of grunge, Reef's well-drilled riffing could seem like manna to American fans.

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Bring Da Ruckus: A Loud Story

RCA 7 4321 44216 2

American rap label Loud's greatest claim to fame is as the first home of Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan, whose 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and myriad subsequent solo projects redefined a flagging genre and put New York firmly back on the rap map.

The most pressing need, then, is for a Wu-Tang compilation that draws together the best moments from the solo albums of Method Man, Genius/ GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Chef Raekwon and Ghostface Killer; this, unfortunately, isn't it. Instead, Bring Da Ruckus offers a couple of tracks apiece from Raekwon and the Clan, alongside lesser material from overrated labelmates such as Mobb Deep, Tha Alkaholiks, Sadat X and Xzibit, with a few naff swingbeat-soul cuts thrown in to demonstrate the breadth of Loud's portfolio.

While the Wu are involved, it's okay: their blend of gangsta style, verbal gymnastics and martial-arts philosophy evokes its own peculiar menace, away from the genre's humdrum threats and boasts. Beyond that, pickings are slimmer. The inclusion of LA latinos Delinquent Habits adds much- needed spice to the mix; and Tha Alkaholiks' drink fixation is more palatably restricted to two tracks rather than spread across an entire album. Overall, Bring Da Ruckus is just about passable as an introduction to the Wu-Tang world, but interested neophytes are better off investigating Genius/ GZA's Liquid Swords (Geffen), the finest rap album of the last five years.

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Highlights from the Mercury Blues UNU Rhythm Story 1945-1955

Mercury 314 532 970-2

Before Atlantic A&R head Jerry Wexler coined the term "rhythm and blues", black music that wasn't jazz was sold as "race" records, on labels specially created to serve the black market. After the Second World War, the musical appetite of the burgeoning black populations of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York brought about an explosion of blues, jive and swing that would eventually lead to R&B, and subsequently

rock 'n' roll.

Based in Chicago, Mercury Records was one of the new labels catering to the emergent black middle-class, offering a wide cross-section of styles, from the acoustic blues of Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy to the smoother, more sophisticated sounds of Dinah Washington and Buddy & Ella Johnson. A taster compilation for an eight-CD set of the label's output, this album offers a one-stop snapshot of the quality and diversity of these pre-rock 'n' roll modes, taking in the New Orleans rhumba-blues of Roy Byrd, the honking horn of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and the risque ribaldry of Julia Lee. Not one of the 20 tracks is a dud, which makes it pretty much an essential purchase. Educational, too.

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