MUSIC / Albums: But you can call her Janet: Andy Gill gets on first name terms with Janet Jackson

JANET JACKSON - janet. (Virgin CDV 2720)

THE one-word title, with its very specific full stop, is revealing: in the wake of the umpteen-million-dollar contract with which Richard Branson fattened up Virgin before selling it off, this marks the label's attempt to establish Janet as a celebrity mononym, like brother Michael, or Arnold, or Prince, or Madonna. Especially the latter - for janet. is JJ's erotic album, her challenge to Madonna's sex-queen crown.

Thus we get Janet's five-second whispered entreaties between the real tracks and an album programmed to take listeners from pick-up to post-coital cigarette, and beyond - the penultimate cut is called 'Are You Still Up?', and you don't need to be Finbarr Saunders to know what she's getting at. And for the greater part of the album, it works just fine - co-producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis aren't about to let their money act come up short, and the result is the most concentrated and effective computer-soul shot they've come up with in years, ranging from the sophisticated smooch of the opener 'That's the Way Love Goes' to the Prince-funk and sex-moan samples of 'Throb', the chorus of which bears an uncanny sibling resemblance to Madonna's 'Deeper and Deeper'.

The only untoward disturbance is caused by Chuck D, whose guest rap on 'New Agenda' - the album's one social conscience song - sits uncomfortably among the smooth funk and layered harmonies, but perhaps that's only to be expected from a professional irritant like Chuck.

WILLIE NELSON - Across the Borderline (Columbia 472942)

IN THE WAKE of Garth Brooks' success, the most authentic of country-music veterans gets the big-budget treatment, as Columbia pulls out all the stops to try and hoist Nelson into the mega-celeb bracket. Midas producer Don Was is drafted in to helm proceedings, AOR mix king Bob Clearmountain is at the desk, and top session-men fall over themselves to play on material provided by writers both classic (Dylan, Simon) and classy (Hiatt, Lovett). The roster of carefully picked star guests (Dylan, Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Mose Allison, Sinead), meanwhile, makes Across the Borderline the country equivalent of a John Lee Hooker album, all star turns and shoulder-rubbing polishing up a legendary reputation.

It works, too, for the most part: Simon's 'American Tune' is a natural for Nelson's hickory-smoked vocals, and 'Graceland' adapts well to fiddle and harmonica. The quiet declamation of Dylan's 'What Was It You Wanted' fits Nelson like a glove; their duet, 'Heartland' - co-authored by fax, apparently - is a repo-decade plaint ('My American dream / fell apart at the seams') which seems more direct than usual for Dylan, who's dressed in a big hat and Nudie suit for the occasion.

The only cuts which dip below the album's generally high standard are a version of Peter Gabriel's 'Don't Give Up' on which Sinead, playing the angelic Kate Bush part, rather overdoes things - she sounds as though she's ordering rather than comforting - and Nelson's own 'Valentine', which is a case of a pro songwriter looking after his own catalogue by writing a blatant schmaltz standard aimed squarely at a Vegas audience. Far better is his lilting 'Still Is Still Moving to Me', a perfect conclusion to an excellent album.

MORRISSEY - 'Beethoven Was Deaf'(HMV CDCSD 3791)

THE SLEEVE picture shows that protuberant tongue again, fast becoming Mozzer's most significant feature. It's highly appropriate here, since 'Beethoven Was Deaf' is little more than a live run-through of the splendid Your Arsenal with a few other favourites thrown in for good measure, a memento of sorts for those who couldn't make it to last summer's Finsbury Park gig - like Morrissey himself, really.

Apart from a few extra shards of guitar from Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer, including a veritable guitar freak-out at the end of 'The National Front Disco', there's little to distinguish these versions from the originals. They're just topped and tailed with ecstatic applause from the French crowd. But it's the contrast between Morrisey's pointedly measured phrasings and the band's more demented-rockbeast leanings that gives the show its kick.

BLUR - Modern Life Is Rubbish (Food CD 9)

BLUR have made a great leap from the indie-pop drones of their debut Leisure to this more considered sound, though it's impossible to tell how much of this is due to Stephen Street's production. Certainly, the songs themselves have a more focused approach than the group displayed in their appalling contribution to the 'Rollercoaster' tour. Modern Life Is Rubbish is effectively a concept album, the concept being that modern life is, indeed, rubbish, or at least deficient by comparison with the memories of the past, as represented by the painting of The Mallard steaming majestically across the sleeve.

They've deliberately exaggerated their Englishness, from Damon Albarn's excessively Suede-esque cock-er-nee phrasing (fast replacing that lippy Mancunian snarl as the preferred yoof-culture dialect) to lyrics which self-consciously ape that long line of London songwriters which stretches from Ray Davies and Syd Barrett to Madness and Difford & Tilbrook. These songs are replete with references to the underground, the weather, Portobello Road, check-out girls, Mother's Pride and the suburbs, but they lack the essential wit and compactness of their influences - there's less here, ultimately, than meets the eye, just as the booklet picture of them as louche boot-boys sprawled in a tube train is a little too calculated.

(Photographs omitted)

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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