Music: This Week's Album Releases

Elliott Smith

XO

(Dreamworks)

The fact that 's first UK release - of his third album, either/or - only appeared this June makes the progression to this, his first major-label outing, seem all the more extraordinary. Compared to either/or's sparse, bare settings, the arrangements devised by Smith and production team Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (best known for Beck's "Loser") border on the baroque - not that the songs themselves are any less emotionally naked than before. Smith's songs are plangent musings upon the everyday, a series of confidences in which he searches vainly for the moral in the mundane. They offer a blow-by-blow glimpse of the workings of his peculiar sensitivity, with understated but engaging melodies that establish a familiarity of sorts, but quickly vanish once a song concludes, leaving behind a lingering trace of a tune.

The sophisticated arrangements lend a curiously late-Beatles soft-rock flavour to Smith's ruminations, with a string of other comparisons layered on top. the effect is to unearth a wider range of emotional nuances than were revealed by Smith's three previous albums; commercially, XO could even set this most reclusive of artists along the same road as his label- mate Beck. Stranger things have happened.

Waldemar Bastos

Pretaluz

(Luaka Bop 9 46481-2)

The most sublime release in some time from David Byrne's world-music label, Pretaluz - the name means "black light" - is a masterpiece of restrained flamboyance, a blend of spry African styles which invoke the personal as the political, the whole imbued with a generosity of spirit. Bastos is a self-confessed contradiction, an Angolan exile hailed as the true voice of his country despite having lived in Portugal for much of his life. His position as an apolitical exile allows him to sustain a sense of Angola's character outside the context of the civil war which turned the country into a kind of Cold War sideshow: "Angola, Angola, Angola," he implores in "Querida Angola", "you don't belong to strangers ... you don't belong to this one or that one," a reference to the opposing Soviet- and US-backed forces.

Against this history of hardship, Bastos posits a simple togetherness, exemplified by the eclectic pan- African-and-beyond backings, which assimilate soukous guitar, Latin American and Afro rhythms and traces of Portuguese fado singing into their gentle but persuasive folk-soul surface. The results can be immensely moving: the opening track "Sofrimento" - torment, or suffering - is a remarkable sleight of hand, a powerful emotional current caught in a delicate net of guitar.

Fun Lovin' Criminals

100% Colombian

(Chrysalis CDP 070)

Fun Lovin' Criminals are one of the most sheerly enjoyable live acts around, and on 100% Colombian, they finally pin down that air of consensual roguery in a way which Come Find Yourself, for all its warmth, never managed. Slinky and sensual, their laid-back funk grooves have a supremely relaxed persistence - even the brash "Korean Bodega" rolls with a confident swagger - while Huey's off-hand raps ooze sharp-dressed outlaw cool.

Twin titans Barry White and BB King receive appropriate tribute - the former as the conjugal saviour of "Love Unlimited", the latter making an inimitable guest appearance on "Mini Bar Blues"; and interrupting the cool funk flow are a few rowdier exertions, typified by Huey's saucy (but believable) claims of "supermodels on my D" in "Big Night Out". For the most part, though, he deals with territorial matters: assessing the merits of getting "Up On The Hill" and "Back On The Block", hymning the "Southside", sketching the action on "10th Street", and magnanimously concurring that "The View Belongs To Everyone". Slyly confidential, Huey's nonchalant tales of Big Apple streetlife read like a '90s Damon Runyon, or a particularly casual episode of NYPD Blue: it's all about the character of crime, not just the facts, ma'am.

U.N.K.L.E.

Psyence Fiction

(Mo' Wax MW085CDP)

Three years in the making, this collaboration between Mo' Wax supremo James Lavelle and the label's top-selling act, DJ Shadow, stumbles into the position of musical zeitgeist snapshot through a combination of fortune and prescience. A roster of guests that includes Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke, Beastie Boy Mike D, Talk Talk's Mark Hollis and Metallica bassist Jason Newstead indicates the eclectic intentions behind the project, and it says much for U.N.K.L.E.'s approach that most of them are engaged in work at best tangential to their day-job.

The results are diverse, covering just about all areas of modern music, from breakbeat metal and old-skool hip-hop to latterday epic melancholia and the occasional burst of fake soundtrack score, linked together with sci-fi soundbites. The standouts are "Lonely Soul", a nine-minute opus on which Richard Ashcroft searches for the "secret to living" over a shuffling breakbeat, with a string coda by Massive Attack arranger Wil Malone; and "Rabbit In Your Headlights", where jazz drums, Satie-esque piano and a vague looming ambience painstakingly backdrop one of Thom Yorke's most impassioned performances. For all that, the most appealing cut is "Celestial Annihilation", a slice of old-fashioned futurist space-rock.

Baby Bird

There's Something Going On

(Echo ECH CD24)

This is the second album by Baby Bird the band, as opposed to Steven Jones alone, though its shortcomings are still largely his fault. It suffers in part from having to follow Dying Happy, the last of his solo works, and Jones' most rewarding album yet. There's Something Going On isn't a particularly bad album, but its focus on human frailty and obsessional love swiftly becomes overbearing. It's not so much a matter of insight, as of attitude: for all its catchy pop gloss, this is a severely jaundiced album, drawn to dark interpretations of human motives.

There are good moments, none better than the sententious opener "Bad Old Man", a cutting denunciation of an (unnamed) media magnate set to a Morricone-esque piano figure. The effect is impressively Brechtian - one could imagine Lotte Lenya relishing every last phrase. And the way the circling arpeggios of "If You'll Be Mine" subtly evoke the narrator's state of emotional suspension is typical of the album's more artful arrangements. But there are too many lapses into the ploddingly plaintive or overwrought, and too many tracks where loud repetition is substituted for any more adequate climax. One may applaud Baby Bird's attempts to float downbeat observations on uplifting music, but sadly, the freight is too weighty to fly.

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