This week's album releases

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The Independent Culture

BLACK BOX RECORDER | The Facts of Life (Nude)

What's in a name? Just about everything, if you're Black Box Recorder's main man Luke Haines. His bands have brandished monikers both arrogant (The Auteurs) and confrontational (Baader Meinhof), but these days the bitterness of the latter has curdled into a more complex nihilism. Life is still a disaster, suggests Black Box Recorder, but it's too late to do anything other than search for clues as to the cause. The Facts of Life is still protest music, but of a peculiarly enervated Nineties cast, beyond anger and cynicism alike.

Take the album's closing track "Goodnight Kiss", a lullaby based on Pachelbel's Canon, in which the litany of English seaside towns brings distinct echoes of the make-do Fifties into Black Box Recorder's apprehension of the Nineties, an implicit acceptance of disappointment as the natural state of Englishness.

Taken along with the line (borrowed from The Sun headline) about the last one to leave turning out the lights, it's impossible to read the song as other than a commentary on Blair's reign, a half-term report of sullen disillusion. Or try to ascertain the true mood of "Straight Life", a commentary on suburban conformity which hovers between admiration, jealousy and contempt, but is much too discreet (how typically English!) to be any more specific. Do BBR really regard domestic bliss this fondly, or are they applying a layer of irony so light as to be barely discernible?

As with its predecessor, 1998's England Made Me, the tone of The Facts of Life is wry and jaundiced, too cool to be emotional, and much too clever for its own good. With Sarah Nixey's posh-bird vocals fronting Haines and John Moore's cold-eyed dissections of contemporary life, they're like a more sinister St Etienne, simultaneously enticing and alienating.

They may use the familiar modes and melodies of modern corporate pop - witness the hit title-track, which could be All Saints backed by The Art of Noise's children - but you're never in doubt that the music is just so much sweetening for their bitter lyrical pills, in this case a representation of adolescence as an unavoidable existential process: "Experimentation/Familiarisation/It's just a nature walk".

They deal similarly with subjects ranging from the sweet pain of first love ("May Queen") to hedonist misgivings ("Weekend") and the redemptive power of music ("French Rock'n'Roll"), though the most memorable track is probably "The English Motorway System", one of several automotive metaphors employed on the album. Applying the portents of Visage's "Vienna" to a JG Ballardian view of driving as the quintessentially alienated state, the song teeters on the cusp of abhorrence and attraction, lured into regarding the activity's comfortable numbness with largely undeserved enthusiasm. Why else would they believe that, "The English motorway system is beautiful and strange", a claim which features two lies in one line?

TONI BRAXTON | The Heat (Arista)

For most of its 12 tracks, The Heat conforms to the tried and tested strategies of production-line diva-soul, from the synthetic sensuality of the LaFace productions, to the unctuous platitudes of Diane Warren ballads, such as "I'm Still Breathing" and "Spanish Guitar" - the latter finding Toni lusting after a guitarist, wishing he would hold her like his instrument and "...play me through the night". But there are a few moments which suggest that Braxton is trying to move beyond the success of 1996's Secrets, most notably the album-opening single "He Wasn't Man Enough", whose blend of springy acoustic guitar and staccato percussion betrays the hand of Rodney Jerkins, the young genius producer revolutionising the tired swingbeat sound with cuts like Brandy & Monica's "The Boy Is Mine" and Whitney's "If I Told You That" and "It's Not Right But It's OK". Unfortunately, it sets up expectations which aren't quite fulfilled elsewhere: the title-track's rhythms are too jerky and abrupt to convey the requisite summertime languor, while the guest raps by Lisa Left-Eye and Dr Dre on "Gimme Some" and "Just Be A Man About It" are strictly by-the-numbers, Dre's appearance simply serving to emphasise how much the latter lacks his Midas production touch.

>MICHAEL J SHEEHY | Sweet Blue Gene (Beggars Banquet)

Irish songwriter Michael J Sheehy made three albums with a band called Dream City Film Club, to little or no avail, but is more likely to register on the public consciousness with this solo debut, a work of commendable character and craft. It's clearly a very personal collection, with songs about bereavement, betrayal, loss and (occasionally) love presented mostly in sparse, naked settings, often just accompanied by Sheehy's guitar. The more complex arrangements betray the influence of the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave in their modified blues backings, though they're applied with a restraint which allows Sheehy's voice to get up close and personal on tracks such as "Love Me" (a desperate lover's surprisingly amenable response to his girlfriend's lesbian affair) and "Daddy Is A Good Man", a reflection on the painful side-effects of separation which finds daddy advising his child to "pay no mind to what mummy said". Best of the lot is "Cross", which has the pale, wan lines of Danny Kirwan's songs for Fleetwood Mac, with the weary aloofness of the vocal underscored by the Astral Weeks-style strings on the chorus, and a lyric that should be written over every songwriter's desk: "Well everyone has their cross to bear/But I don't nail others to mine." Amen to that.

CLINIC | Internal Wrangler (Domino)

Liverpool combo Clinic demonstrated a canny Scouse grasp of showbiz mores by titling their 1997 debut single "IPC Sub-Editors Dictate Our Youth", a confrontational claim which no doubt helped secure Single of the Week in the NME for their two subsequent releases. Not that they don't deserve at least some of the attention: this short, sweet and sour debut album packs more imaginative strategies into half an hour than most bands manage in entire careers, veering crazily from brief punk thrashes ("CQ") to organ drones ("Distortions") to frantic surf instrumentals ("Hippy Death Suite") to indefinable pan-stylistic exercises like "The Return of Evil Bill", a melodica-rockabilly grind which sounds like The Fall collaborating with Augustus Pablo on an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Their magpie sensibilities are further revealed as fragments of familiar melodies - "Catch A Falling Star", reggae themes - blossom in tracks; though the sharpest spur to their eclecticism comes from Krautrock pioneers Can, of whom echoes recur in "Voodoo Wop" and especially "The Second Line", where vocalist Ade Blackburn copies Damo Suzuki's staccato babble on "Dizzy Dizzy". But if you're set on sonic exploration, there's no better way to start than by opening the Can.

VARIOUS ARTISTS | Stax of Funk: The Funky Truth (Ace)

The sleeve design of Gus Gus Vs. T-World pursues an aesthetic of natural abstraction oddly appropriate to the music, which despite its technological origins, possesses the organic quality suggested by Future Sound Of London on albums like Lifeforms. The Icelandic outfit concentrate here on the more dancefloor-friendly side of their output, with seven lengthy slices of what could best be called slow-flux techno - repetitive loops building slowly through gradual filter sweeps and barely perceptible alterations. Tracks such as "Anthem" and "Northern Lights" start with an ambient shimmer or gently modulated synth figure, developing impetus through layers of interlocking percussion, eventually reaching a frantic pitch of activity. Care and attention is paid to the shape and timbre of individual sounds, resulting in a pleasing balance of minimal lines and meticulous detailing.

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