Lambchop Hank City Slang efa 04979-2

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The second Lambchop offering in six months was recorded last year as a Fourth of July party, the group dusting off a few older tunes in between the beer and the barbecue. Opening with the traditional drifter's lament "I'm a Stranger Here", they quickly settle into the languid Lambchop style, with the glistening chrome tones of pedal steel guitar set against the asthmatic wheezing of baritone sax and cornet, a peculiar combination of the smoothly contemporary and the creakily archaic.

On their own songs, Kurt Wagner's murmured lines sprout strange, improbable images, such as the sequence which opens "Doak's Need" like a series of Chinese Whispers: "Every boy his atlas/ Every boy eats apples/ Every boy is an asshole". True enough, probably, but never put that way before. At only six tracks long (plus a joke track), Hank is a more manageable plateful of Lambchop than usual, but still long enough for their strange, creeping wooziness to dissolve the songs in enervation: at times, it's as if you're not listening to tunes so much as sighs of capitulation.

Lacking the pop hallmark which Neil Tennant brought to their earlier work, this belated follow-up to Electronic's 1988 debut sounds like the ghost of a good album. With one-time Kraftwerk percussionist Karl Bartos playing keyboards and co-writing six of the 13 tracks, some of that group's battery of electronic sounds has been added to the mix, though not decisively: the uncertain balance between Bernard Sumner's melancholy pop and Johnny Marr's more outgoing rock influences is still there, one or the other dominating on a track-by-track basis as the album tacks between techno twitches like "If You've Got Love" and "Until the End of Time" and rockier, more janglesome guitar-led songs such as "One Day".

Whichever style they're working in, though, Electronic are hampered by the absence of a dynamic bass presence, Johnny Marr doubling up with a guitarist's touch on four strings. The problem is most glaring on "One Day", an otherwise well-worked piece with a weak bass part which follows the rhythm rather than joining Ged (Black Grape) Lynch's drums in pushing the song along. Elsewhere, Sumner's vocal and melodic dominance makes dance cuts like "Dark Angel" sound like New Order off-cuts on which Hooky's bass has been replaced by a token Kraftwerk fizz. There are well-written songs here, but too often, as with "Second Nature" and "For You", they're spoilt by indifferent production: it doesn't matter how perfect your chord progression is if it's rendered with all the enthusiasm of a bus following a particularly dull route.

It doesn't quite possess the coherence of Dope Dogs, the last Clinton/ P-Funk album, but The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership - to give it its unabbreviated title - has enough of that classic P-Funk low groove to satisfy all but the pickiest of funkateers. As he sings on the opening "If Anybody Gets Funked Up (It's Gonna Be You)", "You get this funk in your face/ You turn around and get this funk in your behind" - which is about all one requires from a Clinton album, frankly.

Despite the huge cast involved - the current Mothership carries an operating crew of 32 - it's less overcooked than usual, with the accent on subtly layered and interlocked vocal harmonies rather than flamboyant instrumental prowess. The result is a predominantly slow to mid-tempo affair, with elastic shuffles and bass-heavy grinds aimed at hips and groins, while Clinton muses on sexuality in typical cartoon manner, lewdly mesmeric on the sexual mantra "Hard As Steel", or comically booty-obsessed on "Summer Swim".

What is going on in American rock? With the waning of grunge, there seems to have been a desperate retrenchment in operation these past two or three years, as bands like Blues Traveller and Phish rack up huge sales on the back of little more than a willingness to tour their retrograde blues-rock constantly.

Take the Dave Matthews Band. Their debut album, Under the Table and Dreaming, went triple platinum in America, while disappearing without trace elsewhere. This follow-up, it is confidently predicted, will do likewise, despite its deeply unloveable aspects. Crash exists at the point where Vedder- esque vocal mannerism and self-absorption meet muso indulgence and roots affectation in territory as bland and featureless as that occupied by Hootie & The Blowfish. There's scant chance, on this showing, of any Dave Matthews Band tracks turning up on a future Moog Cookbook album.

It all depends, I suppose, on whether the violin is your idea of an adequate lead instrument for rock 'n' roll. I'm not sure: paired here with a funk rhythm section, acoustic guitar and saxophone (or even worse, flute), it's busily uninvolving, not too unlike a serious muso version of The Levellers. The best bits are invariably produced by the burring baritone sax, which captivates on a far deeper level than violin, even when used mainly as textural colour. Matthews himself has a hard, brittle voice and a penchant for empty phrases. "I have no lid upon my head," he offers unnecessarily at one point, "But if I did/ You could look inside and see what's on my mind." But isn't that what lyrics are for?

ANDY GILL

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