This Week's Album Releases

TORTOISE | <i>Standards</i> A QUIET REVOLUTION | <i>A Quiet Revolution</i> DAVID THOMAS AND TWO PALE BOYS | <i>Surf's Up!</i> SKITZ | <i>Countryman</i> DAVID AXELROD | <i>The Axelrod Chronicles</i>
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The Independent Culture

TORTOISE | Standards (Warp)

TORTOISE | Standards (Warp)

Those who study such matters in detail claim that Standards is something of a departure for John McEntire's plodding Chicago prog-rockers. Compared to 1998's TNT, which was made up and messed up as they went along in the studio - and sounded like it - these 10 instrumentals are apparently the product of much preparation, recorded only after a substantial period of rehearsal and composition. The resultant tunes (their term, not mine) are "direct and immediate", according to their press biog, which is a lot like saying the M25 allows "direct and immediate" access to all parts of London. Almost without exception, the tracks lack definition and momentum, offering only the most desultory conflations of lumpy, self-consciously "difficult" drum figures, noodly keyboard lines and vibes parts, with maybe a few scritchy-scratchy electro percussion noises thrown in here and there. The only time they produce a melody worth half a hum is "Blackjack", a sort of over-busy soundtrack exercise. Otherwise, the general tone remains the same as previous Tortoise releases, a joyless blend of Caravan's hermetic meanderings and the most indigestible of Zappa's clever-dick excursions - an effete, bloodless music that's not just post-rock, but post-roll and probably post-and too. But though a strong contender for dullest album of the year, it's already been surpassed by Labradford's fixed::content, whose longueurs are just about the longueust yet experienced.

A QUIET REVOLUTION | A Quiet Revolution (Poptones)

This is the latest outlet for former Undertones and That Petrol Emotion guitarist Damian O'Neill, diving headfirst here into the possibilities of the sampler, after years spent on a largely six-stringed musical diet. The result is one of the first offerings from Alan McGee's Poptones label that isn't either a novelty record or in some way descended from the same jangle-rock tropes that constituted a large part of Creation's early output. The opener, "Velvet", is typical of the method employed here, an opiated crawl in which whining slide guitar vainly seeks a foothold of sorts in a slowed-down marimba sample. Several tracks feature much the same instrumental palette as Tortoise, but use the sounds in a less methodical manner, allowing the music to follow unexpected twists and turns as each new layer is added, building up a surprisingly attractive smeary texture, highlighted with individual instrumental motifs - the bathetic horns of "Vapour Music", the enigmatic zither of "Hell Is A Closed Door", the rhapsodic violin swirls of "Ambassador". O'Neill's technique reaches its apogee on "You Stepped Out Of A Dream", in which an arthritic hi-hat doggedly pushes along sundry creaks and groans, while various slowed-down and/or reversed string and horn glissandi culled from lounge muzak melt into each other. It's a remarkable transformation, restoring mystery to sounds more usually noted for their over-familiarity in malls and elevators.

DAVID THOMAS AND TWO PALE BOYS | Surf's Up! (Hearthan/Glitterhouse)

The perennial maverick spirit, David Thomas currently pursues several parallel musical careers, combining his long-standing role as helmsman of the legendary avant-rockers Pere Ubu, with more frequent outings taken in the company of the guitarist Keith Moliné and the trumpeter Andy Diagram, late of James. But then, if any artist is big enough to cope with two careers, it's the former Crocus Behemoth. "Outings" is the operative word here, as Surf's Up! continues the vein of peripatetic reflections that produced both Ubu's Pennsylvania from 1998 and Thomas's 1999 live album Mirror Man, with tracks like "Runaway" and "Night Driving" evoking the restless pioneer spirit and wide-open spaces of the American psyche, and "River" delineating the dark currents separating the singer from a people whose "faces are haunted, [and] their houses are haunted as well". Always sensitive to his surroundings, and to the distance between people, Thomas's sojourns seem coloured by the conflict between his own inquisitiveness and the suspicion with which it's greeted, he being the exemplary outsider who's obviously "not from around these parts", wherever he may be. "They leave the lights on in this town all night, for fear of the darkness," he observes in "Ghosts", the menacing intimacy of his delivery underscored by spooky slide guitar and inebriated trumpet. But it's not entirely sinister territory he traverses here: the undertow of absurdist humour that marks all Thomas's work helps lighten the gloomier corners of Surf's Up!, while the title-track itself brings a deeper pathos to the Beach Boys classic than even Brian Wilson envisaged. The trio's musical range confounds the apparent restrictions of their line-up, with both Moliné and Diagram employing batteries of effects to build up banks of different instrumental voices with which to accompany Thomas's vocals and lowing melodeon (a kind of accordion). So inventive is their approach that in some cases, it's virtually impossible to tell which of them is producing a particular sound. And while both Pale Boys are individually capable of searing solos - Diagram's cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof break in "Runaway" is particularly thrilling - they also know when to keep it simple, and when not to play at all: the most moving piece on the album, "Come Home/Green River", is also the most minimal, with the drone of melodeon matched by a persistent one-note guitar presence and trumpet monotones that swell out in waves, producing an effect akin to the horns on Love's Forever Changes. An object lesson in the art of balancing methods and means, from a modern master.

SKITZ | Countryman (Ronin)

This debut compilation from producer Skitz offers ebullient evidence of the rude health of the UK's hip-hop scene, with guest MCs such as Roots Manuva and Rodney P and turntablists like Deckwrecka and Harry Love lending a family atmosphere comparable to stateside rap innovators Rawkus Records: in effect, Countryman is a sort of British Lyricist Lounge, stuffed with diverse skills with a homegrown slant. In some cases, this is simply due to the parochial name-checks - the shouts out to various London neighbourhoods in Rodney P's "Dedication", and Taskforce's references to the Highbury Estate as "The Junkyard" - while the flavour of the British black experience surfaces in dialect. And though a few contributors have adopted American rap's tone of criminal fatalism, it's usually done with a twist, as in Dynamite's "Double Reds", a blackly comic tale in which a tyro teen villain's plans are thwarted by the clamping of his getaway car. Elsewhere, Roots Manuva's philosophical swagger illuminates the blend of picnics and predation affecting "Inner City Folk", while Wildflower, Tempa and Estelle offer a feisty take on feminist self-assertiveness in "Domestic Science". Skitz's grooves, meanwhile, are a distinctive blend of breakbeat funk, jungle and reggae, with few of the rough edges smoothed away. As Solomon & Wiggy note in the album intro, "The revelation will not be civilised/It will be unruly, grimy, lowdown and raw."

DAVID AXELROD | The Axelrod Chronicles (Fantasy/Ace)

The producer/arranger David Axelrod came to public attention in the late Sixties, when he effectively took over flagging psychedelic garage-band The Electric Prunes, composing and producing their "religious rock" opus Mass In F Minor, an innovative blend of acid-rock and Gregorian chants. The subsequent decade saw him develop a reputation as a soul/jazz arranger for such as Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls, devising sophisticated soundscapes that would cause his stock to rise sharply 25 years later when they were sampled by the likes of Lauryn Hill and DJ Shadow.

This anthology draws together the work he did for Fantasy Records in the mid-Seventies, notably his own Heavy Axe jazz-funk album from 1974, and isolated arrangements for such as Gene Ammons, Hampton Hawes and Adderley, played by a top session crew that included George Duke, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and a 10-piece horn section. It's not hard to see what attracts the breakbeat generation's interest: comparable in ambition to the work of contemporaries like Lalo Schifrin and Don Sebesky, Axelrod's precisely modulated arrangements are characterised by a dystopian urbanity perfectly suited to hip-hop's mean-street menace, with chill strings and rich, dark horns offering tart, pessimistic commentary on the "lifestyle" jazz fusion perfected by Creed Taylor's CTI label. For b-boys and Steely Dan smoothies alike.