ALBUMS / Songs of innocence and experience: Andy Gill wants musicians to take sabbaticals. Janis Ian and Deborah Harry prove his point

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The Independent Culture
JANIS IAN

Breaking Silence

(Morgan Creek / Polydor 519614-2)

Like Donald Fagen, Janis Ian has gone 11 years between albums, though that's not what the title of this new LP refers to directly; it's about child abuse, just one of a series of taboo subjects she confronts here with resolution and insight.

Using a precise, crafted lyric style, she sketches out situations in a measured tone, letting the narrative bombshells explode with only the barest acknowledgment of distress - a quiet groan of electric guitar, a gulp of slide bass - disturbing the calm surface of her settings. Like other female singer-songwriters bringing the experience of a certain age to their work - Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez - she favours a sparse folk-jazz formula which lets the bitter truths of songs like 'His Hands' and 'Tattoo' (about a Holocaust survivor literally scarred by the experience) pierce intimately.

Her account of how a relationship was sundered by violence, 'His Hands', has the quiet fortitude of lessons learned, the shock of finding loving hands wielded in anger giving way to new resolve: He learned it from his father, and from his father's wife / He learned it from the preacher, who told her they were married for life / And if I'd had his children, they might have learned from me / I finally ran when I saw that his hands would sign that legacy.

Unsurprisingly, there are more bouts of retrospection in the vein of her Seventies hit 'At Seventeen', though the wisdom of her years - she may be only 43, but she's been writing for 28 years - illuminates the past with a more compelling light. And while the Civil Rights-era nostalgia of 'Guess You Had to Be There' verges on the corny, there's a resurgent strength to the survivor-song 'This Train Still Runs', which acknowledges that for most of us the only heroic act is endurance. With Breaking Silence, she does that, and more.

DEBORAH HARRY

Debravation

(Chrysalis CDCHR6033)

OLETA ADAMS

Evolution

(Fontana 514965-2)

Would that other, less gifted, artists would take the kind of extended sabbaticals that the likes of Ian have used to re-charge their career batteries. Deborah Harry's Debravation attempts to prolong her over-extended 15 minutes with insipid, jerry-built numbers ranging from the routine Ramonery of 'Standing in My Way' to the unattractively ponderous 'heavy' style of 'Fugitive', with cursory nods en route in the vague direction of rap ('Stability') and disco ('Lip Service'). A plethora of producers lends the album a disparate, crazy- paving style which backfires badly; intended to show off her versatility, what it actually shows is in how many different ways she can be terrible.

Oleta Adams' second album is more of a piece, but is crippled by mediocrity: there's far less going on in this series of tasteful, meandering trifles than meets the ear. Using a more pedestrian 'lounge' style than in her debut (where Roland Orzabal injected a little pop life), she parcels out emotion in controlled bursts, but her cabaret leanings weigh against the slivers of soul in her songs. Too many are simply colourless, flaccid pieces: the closest Evolution gets to memorable is 'Baby I'll Come When You Call', and then it's more like a minor Broadway show-tune than pop or soul music. Stewart (Simply Red) Levine applies his usual deft shadings, but no matter how lively he may try to make things, the album suffers from an excess of poise, with Adams' singing the vocal equivalent of walking with books on your head.

BLACK 47

Fire of Freedom

(SBK 0 7777 80686 2 4)

Highly-touted Irish-American rockers Black 47 have boundless swagger, some funk, and a singer, Larry Kirwan, who applies the hurt reproach of Robert Smith to his tales of the street, his Socialist / Republican anthems and hackneyed New York City mythologising. Notwithstanding his accomplishments as a lyricist - the inter-racial love song 'Banks of the Hudson', for instance, is done as if the banks in question were bonny and bucolic rather than territorial boundaries - there are some stupefyingly stupid songs and musical strategies on Fire of Freedom. The Uillean pipes / beatbox blend of 'Rockin' the Bronx', for instance, is not exactly the most happening of combinations and it's probably safe to say that Black 47 should find some other way of broadening their appeal than by attempting to play reggae. What Kirwan and co are best at is transferring their boisterousness to the early Springsteen style, though even here they're a little too blatant at times, with definite shades of 'Rosalita' in their account of the debacle that is 'Maria's Wedding', especially when Kirwan sings that Ten years from now this is all goin' to be / one big happy memory. Yes, and maybe one day we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Peace Together

(Island CID 8018 / 518 063-2)

A benefit album intended to 'create a trust fund in support of cross-community activities for young people in Northern Ireland', Peace Together has impeccable cred and contributions from a wide range of British and Irish artists, but still seems unfocused and half-hearted.

Part of the trouble is that the artists have been allowed to choose their own cover versions 'for their specific relevance to Northern Ireland and the trauma of confrontation' which covers a multitude of musical sins, some just drab (Blur's fatuous 'Oliver's Army', Carter's 'Peace in Our Time' and, dullest of the dull, Therapy's 'Invisible Sun'), while others are more objectionable: Pop Will Eat Itself should have been kept well away from 'Games without Frontiers', and Fatima Mansions' reading of Sandy Denny's 'John the Gun' is just a downer, in no sense uplifting.

On the credit side, Curve and Ian Dury make a fine techno-goth mess of 'What a Waste', Young Disciples essay a sublime, gentle funk version of Stevie Wonder's 'Bad Weather', and the sheer incongruity of My Bloody Valentine's way with John Barry's 'We Have All The Time in the World' is probably the most appealing track, along with the Cocteau Twins' remix of the title-track. But U2 and Lou Reed's desultory live version of 'Satellite of Love' is just derisory, while a veil should be drawn over Rolf Harris and Liam O'Maonlai's 'Two Little Boys'. Nice cause, shame about the music.

(Photographs omitted)

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