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Music: This Week's Album Releases

Most live albums are at best little more than mementoes, and more usually just cynical contract-fulfilment operations. Very rare is the live album that constitutes a genuine historical document, but such is the case with Preston 28 February 1980, a recording that captures one of Britain's most influential groups at the peak of their powers, triumphing over technical tribulations to evoke the spirit of the times with a visceral immediacy that is simply thrilling.

Dropped like an anachronistic turd into the amniotic swimming-pool of cosy, late-Nineties pop, this album's power seems hugely magnified, a frightening burst of true soul music that serves to remind the body of what adrenaline feels like, without endangering it in the process.

Opening with the Krautrock grind of "Incubation", the show deteriorates gradually through "Wilderness" and "Twenty-Four Hours" as the band's equipment malfunctions. "The Eternal" rattles in on the back of a primitive drum- machine, its extended Gothic-organ passage blossoming - or, more accurately, wilting, - into Ian Curtis's brief, glum vocal. The problems continue into "Heart and Soul", with the band reduced to playing everything through the bass amp alone. It sounds great, but the band don't think so, and there is a sad, premonitory frisson to Curtis's wan comment that "It's all falling apart".

Then suddenly, it's as if someone has rammed a syringe of amphetamine into the band's collective chest, as the predatory menace of Hooky's bass intro heralds a "Shadowplay" that is surely one of rock music's definitive performances, bum notes and all.

Yet, unimaginably, the peaks just keep getting higher: "Transmission", "Disorder", "Warsaw", "Colony" and "Interzone" build up to a climactic "She's Lost Control" that still sounds like the future, almost 20 years later. It's a quintessentially northern sound, a hissing, industrial clangour with sweat on its brow and oblivion in its heart, the kind of music that it's impossible to imagine coming from anywhere much further south than Birmingham.

As such, it's a striking reminder of a period and a place which, ostracised from the tawdry metropolitan chic of the London-based punk fashion business, really did feel like living in a colony. It's also, more pertinently, an exhilarating exhibition of the way that rock music could communicate in those dim and distant pre-mouse days, before leisure corporations learnt to anticipate our every desire, and computers fooled us into thinking we were closer than we really are. In other words, this recording has been released at just the right time.



Big Cat

WITH THE likes of Jerry Dammers and Kid Loops sprucing up his old tunes, last year's Fearless remix album effected a deserved comeback of sorts for the reggae legend who first recorded with Lee Perry, Dennis Brown and Joe Gibbs back in the early Seventies. For this follow-up, Junior's aligned himself with On-U Sound dub maestro Adrian Sherwood and guitarist Skip McDonald, neither of whom is known for sticking to the musical straight and narrow. The results are impressively varied, ranging from the updated "original gorilla music" of "Turn 'Em Over" - a throwback to the days of gangstas and gun courts, with references to rude boys Claudie Massop and Bucky Marshall - to the pious "The King Shall Come" and "Time Will Tell Us All". The feel is of a reggae take on Seventies country-soul, compellingly on "Hanging Tree", echoing McDonald's Little Axe blues-groove project in sounding like a Jamaican version of a blues spiritual, with harmonica and grimly fatalistic guitar.



Wall Of Sound

FROM READING, Berks, by way of the idea of Paris, France, young Jacques Lu Cont (or so he claims) is the hand behind Les Rythmes Digitales, a moniker perhaps chosen to fit these French-techno-friendly times.

Darkdancer shares occasional similarities with Air and Daft Punk, but the most obvious reference points behind Lu Cont's infectious, mildly irritating synthi-pop are all from the Eighties: the tinny Sugarhill hip- hop drum-machine of "Music Makes You Lose Control", the Harold Faltermeyer vamps of "(Hey You) What's That Sound?", and especially the period soul diva Shannon and the multi-talented mullet from hell Nik Kershaw as guest vocalists.

Most tracks feature just chanted vocals, and there's an overall ambience of plucky Human League pioneer spirit. But one wonders: is this the limit of Lu Cont's ambitions, fastidiously re-creating the decade that music forgot? A Howard Jones for the millennium - now that would send a chill down the spine.


Utopia Parkway


SOME THINGS, as Paddy McAloon once suggested, hurt more than merely cars and girls; but in the mythical America inhabited by the Fountains Of Wayne, there's still little more than that on offer. While Utopia Parkway is stuffed with vehicular references - including a Lexus, only there to rhyme with Texas - the group themselves are, to quote their song "Amity Gardens", "...not driving, [they're] along for the ride". Though often garlanded with terms like "perfect pop", their relationship with the notion is purely theoretical: they traffic in someone's artful, carefully measured idea of what pop sounds like, but their music lacks the dumb, exuberant quality of real pop. It's too busy smirking at its own supposed cleverness, with a mild irony that never threatens to poke you in the eye in the manner of, say, Randy Newman. FOW's characters are cliches waiting to be turned into rhymes.

This is just the sound of suburban entropy ossifying into a sentimental facsimile of happier times.




I RECALL interviewing Mike Oldfield seven years ago, in a room crowded with dozens of guitars at parade rest on their stands, like Nigel Tufnell's in Spinal Tap. I was immediately reminded of the famous Chinese terracotta army, the serried ranks of stone soldiers waiting mute and implacable for their orders. Guitars is the sound of Oldfield's guitar army on the march: all sounds including drums, the sleevenote boasts, were derived from guitars (as if it mattered). But what's surprising is how little contemporary musical modes have affected this recording. What's equally puzzling is Oldfield's need for such a plethora of guitars; he remains reliant on the few basic styles that have sustained him through that career. There's the cripplingly polite acoustic picking; the prissy, heavily-sustained electric lead tone; and the bombastic chugging of distorted electric guitar, is his approximation of "rock" guitar. When he strays outside these parameters he simply reveals his ignorance of the form in question.