(Elleffe/Mercury 558 771-2)
ALTHOUGH THERE'S something a little too considered about - the all-black uniform, Sophie Ellis-Bextor's gamine style, the restraint of their perfectly-manicured pop - it's virtually impossible not to be impressed by this debut album, which might well be the final cherry on the Britpop cake. The prime reference-point is clearly Pulp, though Jarvis's constant wrestling with his conscience is rather more revealing than Sophie's superior cool. But guitarist Billy Reeves' cleverly-crafted, laconic lyrics would give anybody a boost of confidence.
The tone of Reeves' songs is signalled by titles like "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed" and "You Get What You Deserve": these are lyrics which alight on situations and spiral inwards to their core. At times, they can be too arch to be really effective, but even a relative clunker like "Now That You Are 18" includes notions as astringent as "your dream/has become/routine". Less welcome is the navel-gazing that attends "I Got The Wherewithal", whose fascination with album review ratings hints at the obsessive insularity which helped bring indie-pop to its present shaky state.
(Sugar Free 154930042-2)
HAILING FROM Taughton, Massachusetts, Wheat inhabit a world which proceeds at speeds varying from the languid to the stuporous, rarely straying too far from the pedestrian. Which doesn't, I suppose, say much for Taughton, Massachusetts - though if the town's apparent placidity disguises mysteries as beguiling as those of Medeiros, it can't be far from paradise. There's a euphoric melancholy to Wheat's music, but it's not really lo-fi or sadcore; like The Pernice Brothers, it's more wistful and reflective, sometimes painfully so.
Though there's no obvious link from one track to another, Medeiros seems like a song-cycle: there's a powerful sense of connection running through these eight songs, as if one issue is being worked out in a variety of ways, perhaps over the slow course of a summer holiday. Singer Steve Levesque is from the Neil Young school of weary croaks, while the band's arrangements - methodical, cycling guitars, amorphous keyboard washes, and occasional quiet scrawls of synthesiser noise - artfully complement the air of enigmatic ennui. Such lazy brilliance is rare indeed.
(Grapevine GRACD 241)
NAMED AFTER the all-singing, all-dancing point man of a New Orleans Mardi Gras tribe, whose appearance prefigures the imminent arrival of the tribal procession at the city's annual carnival, Spyboy finds silver-haired country queen Emmylou Harris capitalising on the success of 1995's career-reviving Wrecking Ball, which won her the following year's Contemporary Folk Grammy.
A live album drawing on all stages of her career, from "Love Hurts" - one of the duets with the late Gram Parsons which prefaced her first solo outing - through to a luminous new version of Daniel Lanois' "The Maker", it showcases both Emmylou's strengths (as singer and as judge of material) and the quicksilver style of her band, now also called Spyboy. The work of guitarist Buddy Miller, in particular, is quite dazzling, showering flurries of fast-picked notes across the album with a nerveless nonchalance.
The songs come from reliable sources - Lanois, Parsons, Jesse Winchester, Rodney Crowell, etc - though Harris's own "Boulder To Birmingham", originally from her 1975 debut Pieces Of The Sky, remains the equal of anything here.
(Island CID 8064)
WHEN PURESSENCE'S eponymous debut was released in May 1996, it was hopelessly out of step with musical fashion, floundering - for all its tyro confidence - in the wake of the previous year's Oasis/Blur commotion. Since then, Radiohead and The Verve have radically altered the landscape of British pop, replacing rampant laddism with a new depth and seriousness, to the point where Puressence's brand of soaring, soul-baring rock has suddenly acquired a remarkable prescience. Theirs is a stern, powerful sound, reminiscent of new-wavers like Wire and The Comsat Angels, with James Mudriczki's idiosyncratic, quavering tenor sounding at times uncannily like Love's Arthur Lee.
Mudriczki brings an ambivalent, quizzical awe to songs such as "This Feeling" and "Never Be The Same Again", but his range of vocal moves - the ever present vibrato and melodic intervals he favours - could be much wider; there were several points on Only Forever where I felt I was listening to the same song I had heard a few tracks earlier. Musically, a prevailing grey tone to Puressence's stadium rock belies the apparent passion and ambition of their songs.
MICHAEL BROOK & DJIVAN GASPARYAN
WITH LITTLE fuss, guitarist/producer Michael Brook has, over the last few years, become the pre-eminent enabler of world-music crossovers, through rewarding Realworld collaborations with the likes of U Srinavas and (most spectacularly) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This time, he's working with the Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, whose 1994 album Moon Shines At Night remains one of the most powerfully evocative releases of recent years.
The duduk is a Eurasian wind instrument akin to the flute or shakuhachi, though in Gasparyan's expert hands, it possesses a deceptively malleable tone, eliding smoothly between notes to lend a heady, seductive sway to the eight pieces which comprise Black Rock. Brook, for his part, unerringly locates the inner rhythms of pieces like "To The River" and "Take My Heart" with hand percussion and repetitive guitar figures - no mean feat, considering the duduk's crepuscular timbre, which sometimes seems to just hang suspended in the ether, disappearing into the space between music and mood. The results are quite magical