This week's album releases

THE WALKABOUTS | Train Leaves at Eight DAN THE AUTOMATOR | A Much Better Tomorrow75 Ark MELLOW | Another Mellow Summer MANSUN | Little Kix
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The Independent Culture

THE WALKABOUTS | Train Leaves at Eight (Glitterhouse)

THE WALKABOUTS | Train Leaves at Eight (Glitterhouse)

The gulf separating Europe and America has been steadily widening. Having long since sacrificed truth on the altar of commerce, the Hollywood film industry now routinely tramples over foreign sensibilities with a disdain bordering on contempt; the country's mainstream music industry is little better, although - despite the efforts of its MTV propaganda arm - less effective in promoting American "values" abroad. For all the success of Britney and Eminem, there are still huge differences in transatlantic tastes, even in Anglophone territories.

The real extent of the gulf, though, is better indicated by considering the other side of the cultural import/export equation. Old stagers such as Sting and the Stones may still be able to shift substantial quantities of albums, but US tastes remain impervious to anything more recent. .

Encouraged by their rulers' smug isolationism, American listeners have become literally ignorant of foreign culture. Which is why Train Leaves at Eight is such a shocking record. Here's an American group, based in Seattle, doing an album of songs from continental Europe, offering their interpretations of material by artists as diverse as Goran Bregovic, Jacques Brel, Neu! and Stina Nordenstam. Its success is rooted in The Walkabouts' refusal to consider foreign parts as simply markets to be conquered. Instead, there's a heartening attempt to understand the character of alien cultures, realised through sensitive arrangements that favour the refined tones of accordion, strings and horns and take due care with lyrical issues.

The results are almost completely successful: Brel's "People Such As These" is whispered over a desultory backing that's an apposite representation of a Gallic shrug, and Vlado Kreslin's lament for the plight of Balkan gypsies, "That Black Guitar", receives a violin-laced folk-rock treatment akin to the rhapsodic swirl of Dylan's Desire.

Elsewhere, more adventurous strategies are used to illuminate the songs: the air of suspension in Neu!'s "Leb' Wohl" is deftly achieved through a detuned vocal murmur and sound effects of rippling waves and midnight trains, while the original sample-collage of Solex's "Solex in a Slipshod Style" is rendered here with real instruments, including the deep, sax-like tones of bass harmonica.

The group's keen appreciation of the various cultural strains can be discerned from their decision to present the 14 tracks as two separate "sides", reflecting the differences between northern and southern Europe. The latter - taking in Theodorakis, Portuguese fado and Catalan anti-Franco protest - are generally more outward-looking, romantic and political; the northern songs, by contrast, are rather darker and more interiorised, concerned with matters of mortality and the difficulties posed by acute introspection.

But from whichever angle one views Train Leaves At Eight, it's a courageous undertaking that deserves attention. Unless you want to listen to Eminem and Britney for ever, that is.

BRAVE CAPTAIN | The Fingertip Saint Sessions Vol (1Wichita)

I'm surprised there isn't a counselling group for survivors of brief celebrity, in which former group members can receive the re-stabilisation necessary for life beyond the hermetic confines of the rock'n'roll band. Life can be hard for the newly solo - just ask Frank Black or Bernard Butler. Or, for that matter, Martin Carr, one-time creative mainspring behind the Boo Radleys, who here unveils the first efforts of his new solo project, Brave Captain.

Recorded with the assistance of only the Super Furries/Gorky's producer Gorwel Owen, The Fingertip Saint Sessions Vol 1 is a six-track mini-album that finds Carr desperately trying to recast his store of musical influences into new and interesting shapes, with only partial success.

Some tracks are fairly enjoyable homages - the Bacharach chords and plodding Wilsonian piano of "Raining Stones" are pleasant enough - but elsewhere Carr goes out of his way to be obtuse: "Big Red Control Machine", for instance, in which toy piano and bass drum climb slowly out of a scratchy sonic murk while the vocal murmurs inaudibly in the right channel.

In the Boo Radleys, Carr's experimental leanings were for the most part reined into the band's pop sensibility, but here there's little evidence of any such restraint; and when he does employ a more straightforward approach, as on the plaintive acoustic lament "Starfish" and the wannabe anthem "Tragic Story", his efforts are sabotaged by the weakness of his vocals.

DAN THE AUTOMATOR | A Much Better Tomorrow (75 Ark)

Best known for his 1996 Dr Octagon project and remixes for such as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Dan the Automator has made his latest album in similar vein to the work of his San Franciscan colleague DJ Shadow, collaging sample-scapes over upfront, funky breakbeats.

Most of the 11 tracks feature raps by Sinister 6000 (aka the Ultramagnetic MCs' legendary Kool Keith), freestyling surreally on cuts such as "I Want Da Mic" and "A Better Tomorrow" and name-checking virtually every cartoon character from Mr Magoo to Skeletor on "Cartoon Capers".

The most impressive of his contributions is the more direct "It's Over Now", an assessment of the hip-hop scene that finds Keith turning his back on gun culture to chill with his girlfriend, reflecting: "This industry was cursed/ Since the dinosaur birth." The backing employs a wistful string pad, contrasting sharply with the sirens sweeping around the gangster narrative of Keith's "King of New York" and the gunshots punctuating "Buck Buck".

Left to his own devices elsewhere, Dan the Automator displays a nice line in static, fatalistic grooves akin to those used by the Wu-Tang Clan, with brief snatches of soundtrack strings, horn stabs and piano chords chosen for dramatic effect and sculpted into implacable, robotic shape, like a bad horror movie. All in all, a fine curtain-twitcher for Dan's forthcoming Deltron 3030, a "31st Century Space Opera" featuring Kid Koala and Del the Funky Homosapien.

MELLOW | Another Mellow Summer (Atmosphériques)

This latest wave of the Gallic pop invasion is, at least, partly British in origin, with the programmer Stéphane Luginbuhl and the drummer Pierre Begon-Lours joined by the Anglo-French singer and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Woodcock, co-writer of Air's "Ce Matin Là". Appropriately retitled following its wintertime continental release, Another Mellow Summer also draws heavily on antique UK musical modes, which the trio blend smoothly into their soufflé-light ambient pop.

The horns, cellos and descending electric piano lines of "Sun Dance" recall "Walrus"-era Beatles, and "Instant Love" is a creditable exercise in Pink Floyd pastoral. "Shinda Shima", meanwhile, opens the album with some "Strawberry Fields" two-finger mellotron, before mutating into the prog-rock riffing style of early Floyd or Soft Machine.

The Canterbury Scene connection is further reinforced by Caravan-style organ noodling and particularly by Woodcock's voice, which has an air of louche naïveté strongly reminiscent of Kevin Ayers - even when serenading a dominatrix in "Violet".

With the sole exception of the synthesiser raspberry winding through "Lovely Light", there's little to dislike about the album; though even at its most satisfying - the wannabe star satire of "Paris Sous la Neige", the ambient/trance shimmer of "Mellow" - one is keenly aware of its lack of substance. But then, what better way to celebrate the summer than a fluffy, sickly swirl of candyfloss?

MANSUN | Little Kix (Parlophone)

Compared with the dog's dinner that was Six, the comparatively clean, uncluttered lines of Little Kix are a model of restraint. Mansun may still be dealing in sixth-form progressive rock, but this time round they've at least taken the time and the trouble to write a few recognisable songs to support the laboured "epic" pretensions of tracks such as "Comes As No Surprise" and "We Are the Boys" - even if the latter, with its maudlin New Man bleating that "boys have got feelings too", is just the less glamorous younger brother of "All the Young Dudes".

But those same pretensions are a poisoned chalice, in effect sabotaging their impact: the synthetic grandeur of the uplifting-anthem-by-numbers "Until the Next Life", for instance, inescapably reveals its soul as plastic and mercenary, while the crassness of the sudden switch from gentle acoustic strumming to huge, Wagnerian power-chording in "Comes As No Surprise" comes as, er, no surprise.

It's no coincidence that the best track, "Fool", is also the closest Mansun come to a natural pop appeal, with little of the tart's make-up that is caked over the rest of the album. Brazenly chasing the Radiohead constituency, the group themselves describe the album as "epic, soulful, mournful rock", a prospect made even less palatable by Paul Draper's cold, charmless transatlantic sneer, which attempts to pass off affectation as soul - he could be singing the Yellow Pages for all the concern he arouses. A hollow victory.

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