'Knocked out swiftly, the tracks sound tentative and unfinished. The s ingers seem for the most part uncertain of their direction, and the music lies there immobile'

Nearly God

Durban Poison/Island DPCD 1001 524245-2

His first serious brush with expectation finds Tricky side-stepping that difficult second album problem by offering "not a proper Tricky album" but a series of collaborations with guest vocalists including Terry Hall, Alison Moyet, Neneh Cherry and Bjork, all going under the collective title of . As a second-album strategy, it's certainly better than those chosen by the Spin Doctors (a live album), Gene (out-takes and B- sides compilation), and absolutely everybody who thought a remix album might suffice - but to be honest, not a whole lot more.

Knocked out swiftly, the tracks sound tentative and unfinished, like demos. The singers seem for the most part uncertain of their role, or of their songs' direction, and the music lies there immobile, with lonely loops of slowed-down snail-pace grooves which just groan on and on, with a few minor alterations to keep your attention tagging along. There is little of the invention and arresting presence that drew such universal praise for Maxinquaye, and you can sense the collaborators' disquiet - Blur's Damon Albarn going so far as to refuse permission for his collaboration to be included.

Those that remain face up to the task bravely, with some notable successes: Terry Hall adds a much-needed melodic clarity to the wheezy harmonium and woody percussion of "Poems", and Neneh Cherry scrawls her vocal across "Together Now" in the wasted, drained-out manner of late-period Sly Stone, which suits the track perfectly. Others are not so fortunate; Alison Moyet, in particular, tries to turn the bass-grind loop of "Make a Change" into a digital-era country blues with only partial success. Perhaps because of their working history, the most complete tracks are those which feature Tricky's vocal protegee Martina, who slots into the crepuscular cafe ambience of "Black Coffee" with an ease largely absent from the rest of . Nobody else sounds quite as sure-footed in this Tricky terrain.

Palace Music

Arise Therefore

Domino WIGCD 24

Will Oldham's Palace Music plays insular, expressionist country music that has been paralysed by exhaustion. Negotiating Arise Therefore is like stumbling through a parched desert wilderness in which the last vestiges of genre still attached to last year's Viva Last Blues have been blown away, leaving only the barest ruins of songs, the scattered musings of a distracted mind. It's 45 minutes of erosion.

The album opens as it means to go on: "Stablemate" staggers fitfully in, its minimal bass/drum-machine plod augmented by an occasional bleak piano chord. Its funereal tread and hyperbolically gloomy mien makes Tindersticks seem like Chas & Dave by comparison, and things get little more amenable as the album progresses.

The best track by a dusty country mile is "Disorder", in which Oldham's unstintingly frank anatomisation of a dead relationship is borne on the group's most attractive, lilting melody. Elsewhere, his desiccated stream- of-consciousness style is ill-served by Steve Albini's next-to-nothing production, which leaves the songs terribly exposed.

The theory is obvious - a studied, faux-naif presentation of tightly wrought, highly self-aware lyrics - but the practice has left what could, with a little care and attention, be moving, emotional pieces sounding like even lazier, more offhand demos than 's, thanks to their primitive beat-box putterings and all-but-absent arrangements.

It's a shame, because Oldham is one of the stronger lyricists working today, scraping away at the dark corners of sexuality and motivation with sometimes shocking honesty. Indeed, these songs actually work far better as poems: for one thing, you can read them quicker, and readily assimilate their meaning, rather than have it dribble away in the unfathomable longueurs of these performances.

Cocteau Twins

Milk and Kisses

Fontana 514 501-2

There are no great surprises here, unless you count Liz Fraser's abandonment of the new, meaningful lyrical style tried out on 1994's disappointing Four Calendar Cafe. With the notable exception of "Half-Gifts", which all but rehashes Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" as if Brian Wilson had produced it for Pet Sounds, there are only a few coherent sentences on Milk & Kisses - well, only a few that I was able to make out, anyway.

The album, it goes without saying, is all the better for it. The Cocteaus' trademark layers of spangly guitar effects are just too fragile for anything more specific than the intimations of cuddly loveliness in the phrases of songs like "Rilkean Heart" and "Tishbite", where Fraser's multi-layered twitterings come through the speakers like a scatter of autumn leaves wafting through a glade.

It is their best work since Heaven and Las Vegas, blooming with ideas and beauty, and a lot more fun than usual - on "Ups", she can even be discerned, somewhere in the distant background, imitating a ringing telephone.

Experimental Audio Research

Beyond the Pale

Big Cat ABB96CD

On paper, this reads close to fascinating: Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember), formerly of Spacemen 3, hooking up with Kevin Martin (of God and Techno Animal), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) and avant-percussionist Eddie Prevost, from veteran free-music stalwarts AMM. In practice, of course, it's quite a different story. The project turns out to be an unmitigated drone-fest largely devoid of non-theoretical interest, as if all concerned were wary of developing anything too close to a tune or structure.

Titles such as "Dusk" and"In The Cold Light of Day" suggest an attention to mood and moment equivalent to that of classical Indian music, where ragas are composed for enjoyment at specific times of day, but here, there is little or no discernible difference between the pieces - they all sound pretty much like a foggy, overcast afternoon. "In The Cold Light of Day" is typical - the sax and keyboard drones pulse along in the manner of Terry Riley's In C. Prevost - an old hand at catching lightning in a bottle in his (rather more eventful) improvised work with AMM - adds shimmers of bowed cymbal, and after a quarter of an hour, it stops.

"The Calm Before" and "The Calm Beyond" are shorter and slightly sweeter, like glimmers of light from an Orb soundscape, but there is precious little here to hear.As with much "experimental" music, it sounds like a nostalgic billet doux to the time when factories throbbed and hummed with industry, but it would appear there is no such life left in these cavernous, empty spaces.

The Beloved

X

Eastwest 0630-13316-2 The Beloved's 1990 debut Happiness epitomised the spirit of the second Summer of Love, harnessing the touchy-feely mood to skip effortlessly along the cutting-edge of rave innovation. Since then, Steve Waddington has been replaced by Jon Marsh's marital inamorata Helena, and the Linda McCartney syndrome has descended on the group's music, which has become even softer and altogether less interesting.

X follows 1993's Conscience in drifting toward characterless Euro-pop: there is a world of difference between their earlier, imaginative takes on dance music and the drab disco stomp of "Satellite" and "Crystal Wave". One or two tracks are bland enough to be middle-order Euro-hits, but what kind of ambition is that?

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