RECORDS / Albums: Losers, loners, lost-hopers: Andy Gill on John Hiatt's latest, Aimee Mann and the Pogues without Shane McGowan

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The Independent Culture
JOHN HIATT - Perfectly Good Guitar (A&M 540 130-2)

PERHAPS in reaction to his stint with the superannuated supergroup Little Village, on Perfectly Good Guitar John Hiatt has ditched his usual coterie of sessionman cronies to work with a younger group of musicians drawn from the undergrowth of the post-REM American guitar-band boom. The effect is startling: as a songwriter he still deals primarily in dirty-realist tales of losers, loners and lost-hopers, but there's a raw power to the settings that catapults the songs out of their usual polite, reflective orbit - they seem to mean something more urgent here.

The album opens as it means to go on, with the basic guitar-stomp love song 'Something Wild', which, with its talk of 'raging for the meek and the mild', could stand as a statement of principle for the album as a whole. Elsewhere, 'Cross My Fingers' is an exercise in sheer youthful exuberance that comes closer to the pop mainstream than anything Hiatt has done before. And though several of the songs bear the tracks of paths trodden by colleagues such as Tom Petty, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen - the moody chord sequence of 'Blue Telescope' could have beamed in from Tunnel Of Love - producer Matt Wallace (Faith No More) imbues them with a freshness that adds a tart new edge to old strategies.

Hiatt's knack of finding a new angle is well demonstrated in 'Angel', which hinges on the impermanence of lovers' pet names, and 'The Wreck Of The Barbie Ferrari', in which a disintegrating relationship is telescoped into a toy-box microcosm. And while the craftsman in him still can't resist the temptation of rhyming 'bus shelter' with 'helter skelter' and then compounding it with 'Mississippi delta', Hiatt can be direct and dark when needs demand, as on 'Old Habits', a deep, scouring blues about an abusive relationship, in which the resonant electric piano chords hang in the air like the memory of the act itself.

AIMEE MANN - Whatever (Imago 2787-21017-2)

THE former voice and creative heart of sophisticated adult-pop outfit 'Til Tuesday, Aimee Mann split from Epic Records after they managed to finesse the group's final masterpiece Everything's Different Now into a resounding flop. As she notes here in 'Put Me On Top', a frustrated star's lament which she insists was not written about herself, but could have been, 'I should be riding on a float in the hit parade / Instead of standing on the kerb behind the barricade'.

This first solo album proper, made privately then leased to an RCA subsidiary label, is more of the same, only more so: quality pop songs given room to grow, embellished with outre musical details and weird Sixties tape-keyboard instruments - welcome back, mellotron and optigon - which give the album a distinct flavour, sort of slurred and woozy, like 'Walrus'- era Beatles.

The songs, as before, form a tailored birthday-suit of regret, deceit, and complaint, presented with such naked honesty you feel slightly intrusive just listening. But it's the tension between Mann's disarmingly direct, conversational lyric style and the complexity of her musical design that gives Whatever its peculiar charge. Highly recommended.

THE POGUES - Waiting For Herb (WEA 4509-93463-2)

THOUGH the last couple of Pogues albums featured a greater diversity as regards the songwriting chores, the eventual departure of Shane McGowan has left the kind of gap that can't really be adequately filled just by putting all remaining hands to the pump. Most of these songs follow the bohemian-wastrel format McGowan made his own, but they seem more like exercises than outpourings - what the art world would call 'school of McGowan', rather than the real thing.

With the subsequent departure also of Joe Strummer, Spider Stacy has taken on the frontman duties, but as singer he lacks the louche panache McGowan brought to the job; to be honest, at times he just sounds like the bloke down the pub, hammering out numbers with little regard for any inherent drama in the narrative. The move to vocals has also removed his penny-whistle from the Pogues' sound, which has the unexpected effect of making them sound a little less Irish. Ever since the splendid If I Should Fall From Grace With God, they've progressively broadened their sound to take in a wider variety of ethnic textures and structures, but here Jimmy Fearnley's accordion and Terry Woods' mandolin and bouzouki dominate the sound as never before, precipitating a distinct shift towards the pseudo-Balkan style of 3 Mustaphas 3, which might not be the most commercial of moves.

This shift is mirrored in the songs, which drift from the familiar London locations out to more exotic climes such as the Middle East and Japan, with Fearnley's 'Drunken Boat' docking all over the globe: 'We went to sea to see the world, and what d'you think we saw?'. The answer is a set of postcards, whose message is the international ubiquity of that 'cold, hard ground' when you view the world as low-life rather than jet-set.

THE BREEDERS - Last Splash (4AD CAD 3014 CD)

FOUR years on from their dreary debut Pod, and The Breeders have made little headway. Former Pixie Kim Deal's band continues to offer a jerry-built, cobbled-together Frankenstein version of the Pixies' style.

Throughout, The Breeders' preferred tempo is trudge, which is not in itself a bad thing, but the scraps of melody and timbral variety are so meagrely shared out between the tracks one has to wonder whether they can't actually play with pace and melody at the same time. 'Roi' and 'Mad Lucas' are art-noise tone-poems, which basically means they couldn't be bothered to hone a more complete piece out of their bangings and scrapings; when they can be bothered, they plump for the Go-Go-esque girly-pop of 'Divine Hammer' or, on 'Flipside', the kind of pseudo-surf instrumental the Pixies indulged in during their decline. But it's a deserted beach they're hymning, with no waves worth speaking of.

(Photographs omitted)