Music: This Week's Album Releases

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Juxtapose Island

WHILE AN improvement upon the dismal Angels With Dirty Faces, Tricky's fourth album is in much the same vein of sullen opacity. It even opens with more of the whingeing about the record industry that characterised its predecessor, before Tricky settles down to his usual round of asthmatic confidences, crime murmurings and paranoia. It's sad, but the improvements may be due to Tricky's reduced input, as a raft of collaborators including the producers DJ Muggs (Cypress Hill, House of Pain) and Grease (Ruff Ryders, DMX) and the vocalists Mad Dog and Kioka make their presence felt. Alas, none of them has the idiosyncratic style of Tricky - Grease and Muggs's grooves are fairly ordinary, while rapper Mad Dog's lesbian hookers porno fantasy "I Like The Girls" speaks volumes about the limits of his imagination. Best track: "Hot Like a Sauna", a return of sorts to the welcoming darkness of "Hell is Round the Corner".


Mary MCA

ONE-TIME Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee is listed high among the credits for Mary J Blige's follow-up to the multi-platinum Share My World, but any disruptive input he may have had in its creation is undetectable, smothered beneath a welter of celebrity duets (George Michael, Aretha Franklin, K-Ci), big-name guest appearances (Elton John, Eric Clapton), and the kind of familiar borrowings - from such as "Benny and the Jets" and "Pastime Paradise" - that have made the likes of Puff Daddy and Coolio very rich men indeed.

Which is a shame, since Blige is at her best operating outside the usual soul-diva mould, with an astringent, streetwise quality nowhere better represented than on "Deep Inside", a reflection on her own celebrity. "The problem is for many years I lived my life so publicly/so it's hard to find a man I trust ... deep inside I wish they could see I'm just plain old Mary." But the more she drifts towards the generic soul-diva style, the harder it becomes to discern "plain old Mary" behind the aural lipgloss.

EAST RIVER PIPE is the nom de disque of one FM Cornog, a reclusive former alcoholic who makes his strange, engaging records - this is his fourth so far - entirely on his own, shunning promotional duties and even live performances. If the name seems familiar, it's most likely that you've seen it on a Lambchop album, Cornog being one of the few songwriters whose material the Nashville combo has deigned to cover (five songs so far). It's easy to see why: like the 'Chop's Kurt Wagner, Cornog specialises in crystallising enigmatic, bittersweet evocations of states of mind, mostly tending towards the melancholic end of the mood spectrum.

If that makes him sound like just another lo-fi exponent of sadcore country music, that's only partly accurate. While Cornog shares certain similarities with the likes of Will (Palace) Oldham and Bill (Smog) Callahan, there's a yearning, epiphanic quality to his songs which lifts them free of the slough of despond, and they're crafted with a methodical precision entirely at odds with the usual lo-fi manner. Some are so pared-down they're little more than snapshots: the entire lyric of "King Of Nothing Never" runs "Pain is comin' to town/But it won't last forever/Here's your paper crown/King of nothing never"; others, particularly the jaunty "Wholesale Lies", have the disarming simplicity of classic pop hits (though probably not for Cornog himself). The Gasoline Age is a concept album of sorts, with tracks like "Shiny, Shiny Pimpmobile" and "Down 42nd Street to the Light" employing driving as a metaphor through which to apprehend the American condition. "Party Drive" captures perfectly that sense of contentment derived from cruising aimlessly on summer nights, with the drive standing, on a deeper level, for the desire to extend adolescence endlessly into adulthood.

A similar sense of sanctuary attends "Atlantic City (Gonna Make A Million Tonight)", where Cornog uses the simple, haunting manner of "Streets Of Philadelphia" to evoke the optimistic prospect of the casino town; it's a beautiful piece, aglow with expectation, its glittering guitar interplay resolved in a gentle climax of chirping crickets, ratcheting one-armed bandits and casino sounds. Against such hopeful pipe-dreams, though, is set the cajoling and scolding ("you thought that God had time to throw dice at your feet?") of songs such as "All You Little Suckers", a reflection on indolence in which it's hard to read lines like "You spent so long just talkin' 'bout your masterpiece/Your dreams up and flew like a flock of geese" as anything but self-reproach. In Cornog's case, at least, he needn't worry: he may have taken his time getting there, but in The Gasoline Age, he's finally gone and made his masterpiece. Or one of them, at least.


Luminate Yer Heid Columbia

A TRIO comprising the songwriter Jim Sutherland and the singing sisters Sylvia and Gina Rae, The Lanterns bring to mind any number of latter-day fem-pop influences, sounding variously like The Cranberries minus Dolores' yodelling affectation, and Suzanne Vega in her less cryptic moments, and blending the sweet and the sour in the manner of Garbage. Mostly, though, they come across like tartan Cardigans, with Sutherland's sometimes harsh sentiments couched in the sisters' dulcet tones; they make dole-culture privation sound almost blissful in the single "HighRise Town" (best line: "the lifts aren't working and the stairs are getting you down"). Musically, Sutherland relies on simple, catchy pop, as in "It's Not Thursday Every Day", occasionally using his orchestration skills to bring an "Eleanor Rigby" mood to a song like "Isabel", in which a woman frets when her lover calls out Isabel's name in his sleep. "Do you know about me?" she wonders of this notional Other Woman, a figment of her man's imagination assuming more concrete, threatening shape.


Philadelphonic OKeh

AFTER THE comparative diversity of 1997's Yeah It's That Easy, G Love & Special Sauce return to their roots in a fairly single-minded exercise in the folk-jazz-rap style with which they made their reputation - and which has since proved so successful for the former House of Pain rapper Everlast, now a huge blues-rap star in America. Sadly, despite the streetwise affiliations of their material - "...'cause streets are universal and the world is wide", as Love sings on "Dreamin'" - few of the songs help to illuminate their subjects with any clarity or insight, whether dealing with urban blight ("Love"), teenage runaways ("No Turning Back"), or the night-life gulf separating clubbers from dossers ("Rodeo Clowns"). Musically, too, the languid double-bass, fussy jazz drumming and funky rhythm guitar rarely resolve into a decisive form; after several plays through, I still can't recall a single tune, just a few riff fragments - and by far the most compelling of those is the intro to Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman", which they sample for "Dreamin'".