ANDY GILL ON ALBUMS

Tricky Pre-Millennium Tension BRCD 623/ 524302-2: Tricky's follow- up to the seminal `Maxinquaye' seems strangely bereft of both cogent ideas and appealing sounds'
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Tricky

Pre-Millennium Tension

BRCD 623/ 524302-2

It's that tricky second album syndrome, I'm afraid. A bigger disappointment even than the current season's Cracker and Prime Suspect, 's follow- up to the seminal Maxinquaye seems strangely bereft of both cogent ideas and appealing sounds.

Any tension developed in the course of Pre-Millennium Tension comes not from 's constant claims of wickedness - frankly, he doth protest a touch too much - but from the hoarse, asthmatic atmosphere of the album, which opens with muttering about taking Ventolin and murmuring "can't hardly breathe" on "Vent" and shuts down 11 tracks later with what sounds like the wheezy clanking of an artificial respirator. In between, the loops of noise and drum tracks that make up the other tracks seem at least partly chosen for their scratchy, indistinct nature, while both and Martine seem almost too enervated to squawk out the words. Only on "Lyrics of Fury" does the mood change significantly, to a fast rap style which, while not exactly jungle, reduces the backing groove to the drum 'n' bass essentials of rhythm track and backward loop.

Other than that, the stand-out track is probably "Ghetto Youth", on which a Jamaican toaster - the album was partly recorded in Jamaica, which might have something to do with the wiped-out feel of proceedings - uses a heavy patois drawl to illustrate the condition of growing up in the island's slum areas. It's just as slow and weary as the rest of the album, but for once it sounds appropriate.

The Future Sound of London

Dead Cities

Virgin CDVX 2814

In which The Future Sound of London demonstrate that, ultimately, it's not that great a geo-musical distance from "Papua New Guinea" to Dead Cities. As with that earlier techno-ambient milestone, this album sifts and blends sounds from disparate sources into a largely seamless flux, from which melodies don't so much impose themselves as wander distractedly in and out of focus on the back of half-familiar fragments such as the pan-pipe figure from Morricone's Once Upon A Time In America that drifts through the single "My Kingdom".

The dangers of easy-listening tedium normally associated with this kind of stuff are countered well here, however, the restful, hypnotic grooves being broken up by more jarring bouts of musique concrete. There's also been a noticeable shift in rhythmic priorities from earlier releases, FSOL taking a leaf out of the Chemical Brothers' book with fizzing stompers like "We Have Explosive" and the choppy wah-wah groove of "Herd Killing", without losing too much of their natural lyrical grace.

Luciano

Messenger

Island Jamaica IJCD 3009

Last year's Where There Is Life established Luciano as one of the major players in Jamaican music, a possible heir apparent to Marley's long-vacant crown.

Sadly, Messenger is a substantial disappointment, with little of the bite or appeal of that debut. Phillip "Fattis" Burrell's production this time offers a too strangely synthetic space for Luciano's voice to inhabit; and while, on the title-track, he might claim to be "sent by Jah to teach the youth about roots and culture", one can hardly expect the youth to be too energised by Luciano's revelation that "A friend in need is a friend indeed, that is my philosophy". That's not so much a philosophy as a slogan, and one that even Ziggy Marley would consider too simple.

Spice Girls

Spice

Virgin CDVX 2812

More Sugar magazine than spice, the Spice Girls offer a cuter, less threatening variation on the "sassy", sexually aggressive stance of US swingbeat acts like TLC, SWV and En Vogue. Like their American sisters, they claim some level of personal empowerment and control over their own destiny, while relying on male producers to fit them up with chart-friendly grooves.

While one hardly expects such a pop-oriented project to have the threat of the Slits, it would be nice if they could manage something equivalent to, say, the Runaways; but the Spice Girls are too tidily fabricated to have any but the most superficial effect. The girls' individual "identities" are as lifelessly iconic and token as those of the Village People, but without even the suggestion of occupation that the boys were allotted.

The disappointment is mirrored in the music, too, as in the hit "Wannabe", where the supposed sexual forthrightness dissolves into the same old coy euphemism - "zigazig ha" in this case apparently being what they really, really want - just as the initial tough-gal rap style dissolves into the harmless cutie-pie chorus. All in all, it's about as dangerous, and as empowering, as depilatory cream.

Babyface

The Day Epic

EPC485368

Better known as the Grammy-grabbing producer of such MOR soul acts as Boyz II Men, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston - quite a roll of dishonour - the alleged youthfully-visaged one suffers from a vocal fragility that would disqualify him from a solo singing career were he not also the man behind the desk.

His shortcomings are brought into particularly sharp focus when Stevie Wonder puts in an appearance on "How Come, How Long": the same song that, a few moments before, was making no impression at all suddenly sounds like a song of considerable depth and weight when Wonderised. Aided and abetted elsewhere by the likes of Kenny G, Mariah Carey and, in the album's best moment, a beautifully liquid guitar break from Eric Clapton on "Talk To Me", Babyface demonstrates no shame in diving headfirst into the shamelessly maudlin on the flimsiest of pretexts; certainly, the unwary listener that fails to heed the health warning implicit in the parentheses of "The Day (That You Gave Me a Son)" gets exactly what they deserve.

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