ALBUMS / The 5.15 to Mississippi: Andy Gill on Chris Isaak, Diana Ross, John Mayall and goodtime blues from the Deep South

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San Francisco Days

(Reprise 9362-45116-2)

San Francisco Days is as lean and perfectly formed as Isaak's previous retro-pop releases, but this time the trademark tremolo guitar curlicues of James Calvin Wilsey are less in evidence, replaced on some tracks by a rougher, dirtier sound, possibly the work of guitar maestro Danny Gatton. This is only the most noticeable of several slight changes to the Isaak sound; on 'Round 'n' Round', even the drum track sounds artificial, mechanistic, which was never the case before. It makes no difference to Isaak's performance, which is once again like that of an Elvis in whom the naive sincerity has aged into a kind of ancient, yearning romanticism: knowingly doomed to failure, the heart hopes on regardless.

One of the more profitable additions to the Isaak sound is that of Jimmy Pugh's Hammond organ, which spurs the singer on to slightly out-of-character soulful exclamations on 'I Want Your Love', and adds a subtle, broody undertow to the train song '5.15'. This, of course, is the time at which all trains either enter or leave stations in popular songs, and Isaak's use of the cliche here demonstrates his ghostly way with rock 'n' roll conventions: the song simply fulfils the mystery and expectation of arrival and departure associated with train songs, barely constructing a coherent song from its few lines at all.

Not that one feels short-changed; Isaak is one of the few songwriters able to moon it and june it without curdling one's sympathies, as the love cliches in 'Two Hearts' bear out. It's a gift he also transfers to the songs of others, as his earlier cover of 'Heart Full of Soul' demonstrated. Here too, he effortlessly imposes his own subdued, romantic noir aesthetic upon the bloated melodrama of Neil Diamond's 'Solitary Man'. Now that's what I call genius, of sorts.


Live - Stolen Moments: The Lady

Sings . . . Jazz and Blues

(EMI CDEMD 1044)

Though equally useless, Stolen Moments isn't quite as idiosyncratic a failure as Sinead O'Connor's comparable album of jazz standards: where that was - to be generous - an unusual case of disturbing the songs' complex inner balances, this one simply lacks ambition. It's an attempt to be as mainstream and tuxedo'd as possible, a hoped-for ticket to another stage; but sadly, where nature begrudges, glamour alone cannot disguise: Diana's no Ella, no Billie, and the limitations of her expressive powers are rather too exposed in the lounge-jazz settings of arranger Gil Askey.

Like Askey, the preponderance of Holiday songs covered here is presumably a hangover from Diana's 'Lady Sings the Blues' gig. It's a bad mistake: where once there was heart- rending gradation of emotion, the death of a thousand cuts, there is now, for the most part, a monotonous piping with scant claim upon the blues. The playing of such seasoned hornmen as Urbie Green, Jon Faddis and Slide Hampton is as efficient and untested as you'd expect by this work, being required as it is to do little more than paste a veneer of sophistication over the proceedings.


Wake Up Call

(Silvertone ORE CD 527)


Deep Blues

(Anxious 4509-91981-2)

John Mayall may have been turfed out in the great Island clear-out, but his recent work has been good enough to earn him commissions elsewhere, such as Wake Up Call, which follows the now standard Silvertone format of matching an Old Master with several Esteemed Guests - in this case, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples and old Bluesbreaker Mick Taylor, all of whom are on spine-tingling form. Mayall switches smoothly between gentle J J Cale-flavoured chug-a-boogies and slower, earthier piano blues, while his current lead guitarist, Coco Montoya, continues the tradition of Bluesbreaker axe-heroes that has included Eric Clapton and Peter Green. It's a decent collection, even if it doesn't have quite the rich diversity of its predecessor, A Sense of Place.

Better still is Deep Blues, soundtrack to a new film by Robert Mugge, based on a book by blues historian Robert Palmer. Palmer took Mugge to Mississippi to hear the blues as it is played today at its source. Though none of the artists recorded are household names, with the possible exception of Frank Frost, the passion and intensity displayed dwarfs that on many better-produced records.

Palmer rightly differentiates between the modern electric blues of the Delta towns - exemplified here by the stinging guitar workouts of Big Jack Johnson and Roosevelt 'Booba' Barnes - and the north Mississippi hill country style of such as R L Burnside, whose 'Jumper On the Line' is like a Hooker boogie with slicker guitar splitting up the bass beat. There are a couple of Robert Johnson covers done, note-perfect, by one Lonnie Pitchford, but for the most part, this is blues to booze with, goodtime music that earths the bad times. And in the closing 'Devil Blues', by Jack Owens & Bud Spires, Palmer has facilitated the unearthing of a soul-shivering blues classic.

(Photograph omitted)