POP ALBUMS / Pretty dull in pink

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Madonna - Bedtime Stories (Maverick/Sire 9362-45767-2) Packaged in pastel shades of pink and blue, Bedtime Stories is basically a fluffier, less explicit version of Erotica, which sold poorly by Madonna's standards. Judging by the laughable self-appraisal of 'Human Nature', in which she claims she's being 'punished for telling you my fantasies and breakin' all the rules I didn't make', she and her advisers presumably believe that album was just too shocking for our poor provincial sensibilities, and have toned down the smut accordingly. Wrong. Erotica sold badly because, frankly, it was pretty dull stuff, and this album is both prettier and duller than that.

If you can get beyond the bare-arsed cheek of a multi-millionairess pontificating about being 'too busy surviving' in the opening track, you're treated to a parade of minor-league coquetry which doesn't go much beyond the title 'Inside of Me' and the cheeky masturbation references in the single 'Secret'. It's deliberately more romantic than carnal, and the music comes with softer edges to match the distinction. Perhaps this is the function of the production team member credited with 'Sound Design': to put a unifying, soft-focus, gossamer sheen on the disparate work of producers Babyface, Dave Hall, Dallas Austin and Nellee Hooper.

Hooper, noted for his Soul II Soul and Bjork successes, brings along a spare song from the latter's sessions, 'Bedtime Story' itself, featuring typically Bjorkian lyrics which the sultry Madonna can't quite pull off; but then, it must be hard for someone not as naturally eccentric as Bjork to lend sincerity to lines like 'Today is the last day / That I'm using words / They've gone out / Lost their meaning / Don't function any more', without sounding as affected as Madonna does here.

Various Artists - Murder Was the Case (Death Row/eastwest 6544 92484 2) Rush-released to capitalise on the current popularity of the G-funk rap sound popularised by Snoop Doggy Dogg and more recently Warren G and Nate Dogg's 'Regulate', Murder Was the Case is ostensibly the soundtrack to Dr Dre's film of the best track on Snoop's LP. A 16-track soundtrack to an 18-minute film may be stretching things somewhat, but even if it's just a few remixed Snoop tracks bulked out with a bunch of tracks Dre had lying around the studio, it's still an enjoyable low-riding cruise through a different neighbourhood.

The formula repeats the success of Snoop's and Dre's albums, with the various hounds of Tha Dogg Pound taking their turns at the mike when the two principals are otherwise engaged: Snoop's brother, Nate Dogg, the cool soul crooner of 'Regulate', gets his own G-soul showcase 'One More Day', libidinous newcomers Danny Boy and B Rezell contribute slices of explicit bedroom-soul with 'Come When I Call' and 'Horney', and Dogg Pound queen, Jewell, gets to overdo the vocal histrionics on covers of 'Harvest for the World' and 'Woman to Woman'.

It's Snoop and Dre's tracks that make the album, though: the remix of Snoop's 'Murder Was the Case' is a vivid enough scenario even without the film. Most attention, however, is likely to be focused on 'Natural Born Killaz', the first product of the intriguing Dr Dre / Ice Cube reunion, a stab at psycho-killer rap which has Cube acknowledging he's 'Back, down with Dr Dre / Like AC's (Al Cowling) down with OJ (Simpson)'.

Transglobal Underground - International Times (Nation NATCD 38); Ketama, Toumani Diabate and Jose Soto - Songhai 2 (Hannibal HNCD 1383); Robbie Robertson & the Red Road Ensemble - Music from 'the Native Americans' (Capitol CDEST 2238)

Perhaps the only way that indigenous musics can survive against the global onslaught of Anglo-American culture is by infecting the invading culture like a virus.

This kind of assimilation, such as it is, takes a variety of forms: these three examples are all more or less successful exercises, though in different ways. The second Songhai collaboration between African and Iberian musicians is perhaps the most egalitarian of mixes, with tracks like 'De Jerez a Mali' linking the two cultures in an extempore blues wail which blends flurries of flamenco guitar with Toumani Diabate's dazzling kora runs. Elsewhere, Keletigui Diabate adds the sublime marimba-like tones of balafon to 'Niani', while Danny Thompson shows again just how elastically emotive an instrument the double-bass can be, lending a magisterial assurance to 'Pozo del Deseo'.

The soundtrack to a six-part documentary series on Native Americans, the Robbie Robertson album is an attempt to fuse his moody, reflective style of rock with modern Indian music from such collaborators as the Silvercloud Singers, Ulali and Douglas Spotted Eagle. The lyrics, mostly recited, accordingly deal with Native American history and legends, and the music drifts between cultures, the more mainstream pieces at times echoing earlier Robertson songs while tracks such as 'Coyote Dance' and 'Akua Tuta' cleave more to the Gabriel / Lanois ambient-ethnic aesthetic.

Transglobal Underground's second album is the most overtly modern of these three, a state-of-the-art display of multi-ethnic mix'n'match sampling in which Asian vocals are set alongside dervish violin, and electric guitars and keyboards mingle with dharabuka, shawm and tabla.

The recipe works best when TGU elide smoothly between different harmonies and rhythms, as on the deep house shuffle 'Dust Bowl'; otherwise, the pounding house rhythms can become a little tedious. Fortunately, TGU usually have the wit to customise their beats with subtlety.

(Photograph omitted)