Music: This Week's Album Releases

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MERCURY REV

Deserters' Songs

NAMED AFTER Greil Marcus's evocative description of The Band's early albums, this latest offering from Mercury Rev is, by some distance, the best pop record I've heard all year, a breathtakingly poised piece of work which deserves to catapult them to star status. Compared with previous releases such as Yerself is Steam and See You on the Other Side, this is a more controlled record, less prey to the excesses of experimentalism; but though they've lost some of the edge which characterised their earlier work, they've retained the most crucial element, the sense of wonder that sets them apart from just about everyone in today's jaded, cynical rock scene. There's no time on Deserters' Songs for the spoilt, self-piteous whining so prevalent in contemporary British and American rock - the Rev are just too busy trying to express their captivation with the sheer wealth of sound.

In this case, that stretches to include both Mellotron and Chamberlin synthetic strings, trombone, violin, flute, organ, harpsichord, clarinet, a female soprano, and the eerie whine of the bowed saw which snakes its way through several of the tracks like a thread of wistful reverie. Plus the presence on a couple of tracks of Band members and Rev neighbours Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. I've compared Mercury Rev to The Band before, and that holds true more than ever here, where the music has a similar eclectic antiquity, and the kind of grain and unforced ambience that only comes through years of shared experience.

The essential quality here is one of epiphany, with song after song pivoting on the cusp of revelation, as songwriter Jonathan Donahue tries to recall "How does that old song go?" ("Holes") or "The way we were the day we met/The way I lit your cigarette" ("Tonite It Shows"). The album's charm derives from the contrast between Donahue's voice - as fragile, wistful and vulnerable as Neil Young - and the highly sophisticated musical arrangements; from this peculiar combination of naivety and awed wonder comes a wave of poignant yearning that's so much more affecting than the ersatz emotions of most modern soul and rock. Justice demands a wider audience for what is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

WAGON CHRIST

Tally Ho!

Virgin

LUKE VIBERT juggles several careers under a variety of guises - as Plug, he records for Trent Reznor's Nothing label; as himself, for James Lavelle's Mo'Wax; and his Wagon Christ persona has now signed to Virgin for this engaging collection. Luke's thing is sampladelic techno collages, but of a more open, eclectic kind than most, and with a welcome sense of humour which occasionally leads him down a few intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfying, culs-de-sac. It may be fun to meticulously sequence tiny snatches of mouth percussion and slurping noises into a rhythmic groove, like he does on "My Organ", but the attractions of listening to what sounds like synchronised vomiting rapidly wear off.

Tracks such as "Memory Towel" - a mondo exotica sample subtly manipulated to achieve a cool, yearning feel - and the hyperactive "Workout" and "Rendleshack" demonstrate Vibert's ability to conjure up effective grooves, though he does have a tendency to focus on the details at the expense of the overall picture. Sometimes, he'll abandon one direction for another, giving the illusion of change without the substance; and even on the more successful tracks, such as the quirky, funky "Piano Playa Hata", one is left with the impression that the real action is happening in a different medium entirely, that we're just hearing the illustrative accompaniment to a film or play. But at least he sounds as if he's having fun, and infectious fun at that.

VIC CHESNUTT

The Salesman & Bernadette

Pinnacle

"INFER A LOVELY story of loss and longing and sloppy satori," runs the legend scrawled on the back of The Salesman & Bernadette, a loose song- cycle narrative sketching scenes from the lives of the two protagonists as they meet, mate and meander on. I don't know if there's much by way of satori, sloppy or otherwise, about it, but it has its own discreet charm, thanks in no small measure to the warm, lustrous settings of Lambchop, backing band for the album. Like the Chop's Kurt Wagner, Vic Chesnutt brings the great virtue of emotional honesty to his songs, with a sometimes disconcerting frankness about matters of sex and spite.

He also shares Wagner's whimsical impressionism: many of these songs are strange accretions of glimpses and attitudes in free-verse form, masquerading as songs in Lambchop's odd musical garb. But no matter how personal or impermeable a song seems, suddenly Chesnutt will hit the listener with a line which cuts to the quick and brings everything back into focus: "In cahoots or love or all of the above" (in "Bernadette"); "He's using up all that old currency" (applied in "Duty Free" to the international business traveller so feted in airline commercials); and particularly his philosophical summation in "Parade", "We are busy weaklings poking around for reasons". Which just about covers life as we know it, Jim.

BOB SINCLAR

Paradise

Eastwest

THE LATEST of a wave of Gallic techno operatives to invade our shores these last couple of years, Bob Sinclar knows where his imperatives lie: firmly four on the floor, forcing feet to move. Where such as Air and DJ Cam impress with their subtlety and sophistication, Bob sides more with Daft Punk, applying the same relentless directness to his sample- based techno as they do to their old-style acid house. It's utterly irresistible, too: "Disco 2000 Selector" is typical of the Sinclar method, with fat backbeat and funk bass coolly loping along while little tweezered whiskers of synth and the occasional swell of horns punctuate the flow.

It is the combination of simplicity of focus with meticulously-crafted grooves which drives the best tracks on this album, such as the sublime swirl and stomp of the S'Express-like "Vision Of Paradise", the slick soul-jazz collage of "The Ghetto", and the ultimate funk of, er, "Ultimate Funk".

In its dedication to in-your-face propulsion at all costs, Paradise is reminiscent of Doug Lazy's splendid album, Doug Lazy Gettin' Crazy: like Doug, Bob emphasises the logicality and cretin-simplicity of machine- made dance music, tapping into the dumb hedonism that is at the heart of all great rock'n'roll. Unlike Doug, however, he is not averse to effort, judging by the aerobic workout of "Gym Tonic".

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