ALBUMS / He still wears it well: Andy Gill on Rod Stewart and the week's other new releases

ROD STEWART

Unplugged . . . and Seated

(Warner Bros 9362-45289-2)

APART from its ability to attract the biggest names in rock, the success of the MTV Unplugged format relies on a more intimate level of performance, free of the prevailing bombast of stadium rock: it's a way to reach millions in a small-club atmosphere. At its best it can return to rock some of its freshness. But sometimes, the intimacy alone is enough.

So it is here, with Rod seated and thus mercifully prevented from wiggling his bum at the audience, concentrating instead on giving close to definitive renderings of some of his best material, with old mucker Ronnie Wood at hand to chip in tasty slide-guitar. Introducing his first live version of Tim Hardin's 'Reason to Believe' since he recorded it 22 years ago, Rod marvels at the passage of time. 'Most of the band weren't born,' he states, laddishly. 'Me wife was only one]' 'Hwurrgh hwurrgh,' chortles Ron, the most cheerfully disgusting sound you'll ever hear.

Despite problems balancing the thinner sound of Ron's country-blues licks with a rhythm section that makes few allowances for lack of amplification, there's an elasticity to songs like 'Every Picture Tells A Story' and 'Maggie May' that's entirely winning. The ragged raunch of old Faces cuts like 'Stay With Me' is less successful, but the masterstroke is the introduction of a string section, adding emotional uplift to a handful of songs beginning with Curtis Mayfield's 'People Get Ready', taking in Van Morrison's 'Have I Told You Lately' and peaking with a sublime reading of Tom Waits' 'Tom Traubert's Blues (Waltzing Matilda)' - all of them evidence of Rod's great taste in covers.

TINA TURNER

What's Love Got to Do with It

(Parlophone CDPCSD 128)

THIS IS another sort of disguised greatest hits package, being the soundtrack to the forthcoming film based on her life. There are a handful of new songs - the best is Lulu's 'I Don't Wanna Fight' - but for the most part the album offers meticulously reworked versions of songs like 'Nutbush City Limits' and 'Proud Mary'. Oddly, a version of The Trammps' 'Disco Inferno' is included, complete with weedy Seventies synthesiser noises, while 'River Deep, Mountain High' is notable by its absence. As for Ike, condemned by history to wear the black hat in Tina's life story, perhaps it's not surprising that he's only allowed a couple of song credits; and it can't be coincidental that one of these is 'A Fool for Love', whose call-and-response chorus has taken on a retrospective significance: 'You know you love him / You can't understand / Why he treats you like he do / When he's such a good man.'

GURU

Jazzmatazz

(Chrysalis CTCD 34)

FREESTYLE FELLOWSHIP

Innercity Griots

(4th & Broadway BRCD 595)

RAP continues to spread its virus into jazz; or is it the other way round? On Jazzmatazz, the Gang Starr rapper Guru is joined by a selection of Seventies jazz-funkers (Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith) and new US and Brit jazzers (Branford Marsalis, Courtney Pine, Ronny Jordan) on a series of pairings which, though enjoyable, steer too close to easy-listening muzak for discomfort. Guru's hipster-cool voice is agreeable, but he has little to say here; and the musicians, apparently, even less. It's not unpleasant, but the chaotic thrill of even the simplest rap sample-collage is nowhere to be found.

Jazz is only part of the Freestyle Fellowship's thing, and apart from one track - the swinging poetry / jazz groove 'Park Bench People' - they don't use a real band, relying on the more traditional excitements of P-Funk and Kool & The Gang samples when they're not pursuing complex a capella formulations. The album title is instructive, the four rappers offering a South Central LA version of the West African 'griot' tradition (a kind of lyrical historian and 'praise singer'). The freestyle part of their name, meanwhile, indicates their belief in rap as the verbal equivalent of jazz soloing.

For subject matter, they ransack their surroundings, situation and history: 'Cornbread' is a free-associative batch of images from a childhood, and 'Mary' a pro-cannabis ode, while the usual rap territory of drive-bys and bitches is dealt with more ironically than usual.

MERCURY REV

Boces

(Beggars Banquet BBQ CD 140)

'THIS year for Lent . . . give up pop,' advise the American avant-rockers Mercury Rev in their sleevenote to this second album. They practise what they preach: 'Meth of a Rockette's Kick', the 10-minute opening track, begins gently, with pastoral flute, building to a cacophony akin to the Velvets' 'Sister Ray', then adding a barrage of bathetic trombones.

Not for them the mundanities of verse, chorus and middle eight; their method is to leap into the void, with tangential explorations enthusiastically pursued. At the Royal Albert Hall a few months ago, the sextet added three ambient guitars strung above the stage, picking up vibrations and feeding them back into the maelstrom. This astonishing album captures the thrill of heading at 90mph down a dead-end street, and miraculously finding an escape turn at the last moment. Or, sometimes, not.

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