This week's album releases

PUSSYTOONS | Pussyfoot KINOBE | Soundphiles GREG BROWN | Covenant RONAN KEATING | Ronan THE ASSOCIATES | Double Hipness
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The Independent Culture

PUSSYTOONS | Pussyfoot

PUSSYTOONS | Pussyfoot

It may yet turn out to be simply a holding action as musicians wait upon the next big wave or movement, but 2000 may well end up being remembered as the year that audio crept closer to the visual, with an increasing number of pop artists adopting overtly "cinematic" methods of composition.

At its most grandiose, this tendency has resulted in extravagant "aural narratives" like David Holmes' Bow Down To The Exit Sign, while the likes of Jimi Tenor, Primal Scream, Titan and Kinobe (see review) routinely apply film-derived soundscaping techniques to clusters of individual tracks, and evocative soundtrack samples crop up all over pop's pitted terrain.

With Pussytoons, Howie B's Pussyfoot label effectively miniaturises this visual-audio tendency. The third in a series of themed anthologies that started with 1996's espionage album Pussy Galore and continued with the pornographic Suck It And See, it features 13 techno/sampler artists' cartoon-inspired creations, ranging from the cheeky big-beat novelties of Nick Faber and World's End Girlfriend to Howie's own "Homeward Bound III: The Movie", whose chill, forbidding tones evoke the deep-space abyss of modern sci-fi animation.

What sets Pussytoons apart from the endless gamut of house/dance/techno compilations - other than the merciful absence of the word "Ibiza" - is its sheer sense of fun, as the creators run riot through a welter of sampled cartoon sound effects, like kids ransacking the toybox. Look over there! It's Yogi and Boo-Boo - or is it Fred and Barney? - caught on the cusp of flight in Sie's "Blink", with a demented rattle of bongos and heel-skid braking; and isn't that Sylvester, doing the pizzicato kitty tiptoe through Jacknife Lee's "I Tawt I Taw A Puddyfoot"?

Elsewhere, in more direct homages to cartoon composers like Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott, both Chari Chari Chari's enchanting cameo "Tiki Tiki Too" and Spacer's ambitious "Sawtooth Sonata" employ montaged fragments of furtive cartoon bassoon and oboe, while the boings, booms and thumps that illustrate the classic Chuck Jones and Tex Avery shorts are most absurdly marshalled in Inevidence's "The All New Richie Show", which sounds like an explosion in Spike Jones' special-effects box.

Technically, Pussytoons is a triumph of the programmer's art, with almost every track involving the most meticulous sequencing of tiny sound-fragments into coherent, flowing grooves. And while they might lack the generic utility of your basic hardcore stomper or blissed-out trance anthem, it's a fair bet that any one of these pieces will produce a wider smile than the happiest of happy-house cuts. Weird and wonderful in equal parts.

KINOBE | Soundphiles Pepper/Zomba

Hotly tipped as one of the summer's likely feel-good successes, Kinobe's Soundphiles employs the kind of "cinematic" soundscaping approach mentioned in the Pussytoons review, with each track tackled according to its own dramatic evocation. The result is a richly varied, entertaining album, ranging from the spaghetti-western strums of "Hombré", complete with castanets and wistful Morricone harmonica,to the sleek, modernist lines of "Skyscraper", which recallsAir's urbane jazz-funk fusion. Kinobe duo Mark Blackburn and Julius Walters have an obvious penchant for subtle, rather sinister sounds, some deriving from the strangest places: you may already have heard thesingle "Slip Into Something", a paradisiacal reverie featuring guest vocalists Ben & Jason crooning over Engelbert Humperdinck backing-track samples, while elsewhere harps and chilly violin glissandi cast their own intriguing shadowsover tracks such as "Lucidity"and "Grass Roots Horizon". The other guests are equally idiosyncratic in their approaches, dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah bringing a thespian analogy tohis account of social unease in "Theatricks", and new discovery Kan mercifully eschewing the usual soul-diva bleatings in "Grass Roots Horizon". Underpinning everything, however, is a distinctly British appreciation of the groove, with Kinobe favouring a rolling, techno-house funk style that's like Leftfield in a Black Grape mood, fired up and ready for fun.

RONAN KEATING | Ronan Polydor

With little left to conquer - both as icon and businessman - in the hermetic world of boyband pop, the only significant question to be asked of Ronan Keating's solo album is whether it manages to hoist him to a more "mature" pop profile, in the manner of Robbie Williams' solo work. Employing collaborators both predictable (clinical songwriting hit-machine Diane Warren, producers Stephen Lipson and Patrick Leonard) and unusual (New Radicals' Gregg Alexander),it's a confident but uneven selection with a wearyingly perky attitude, as suggested by song titles such as "Belief" and "Brighter Days". The copper-bottomed popcraft of the hit singles "When You Say Nothing At All" and "Life Is A Rollercoaster" is backed upwith a smattering of more adventurous material - notably the impassioned "Addicted", which features Keating's best delivery - but by-numbers balladry still dominates the album, even when, as withBryan Adams' "The Way You Make Me Feel", it's the kind of bloated power-ballad that heavy metal bands take on to demonstrate their emotional depth, rather than a boy-band singer making a bid for maturity. Ultimately, though, it's the abject lack of character which makes Ronan so depressing: Keating may play up his Irishness, but unlike Robbie Williams, he gives no suggestion here that he came from anywhere but the next pod along in Leonard Nimoy's greenhouse. Frighteningly antiseptic.

GREG BROWN | Covenant (Red House)

With his wide-brimmed hat, air of infinite amenability, and a beard that traces his jawline from ear to chin, Greg Brown resembles nothing quite so much as an off-duty Amish - though the material on this, the Iowan folkie's 15th album, is less concerned than most of its predecessors with the kind of social sermonising his appearance might suggest. Instead, it features mainly songs which reflect the broody dislocation of love ("Dream City", "Living In A Prayer"), or hymn the emotional security of marital stability, such as the engaging "Lullaby" ("I look at you and I think of bed... Oh babe, you make me sleepy"). Brown's warm, gravelly voice and penchant for hypnotic blues shuffles bring to mind JJ Cale, with echoes of Johnny Cash in the chipper "Walkin' Daddy" and Leonard Cohen in the lugubrious opener "'Cept You And Me Babe". The latter is the standout track here, a wry lament for dissolving values, prompted by observing the current cellphone mania. "People used to spend quite a bit of time alone," he muses, "I guess nobody's lonely any more" - a wry couplet that brings into sharp focus the changing value ascribed to solitude: we may, he suggests, be less lonely in this age of instant communication, but in dispensing with the less immediate virtue of solitary contemplation, we are somehow less ourselves.

THE ASSOCIATES | Double Hipness (V2)

Compiled to accompany reissues of their Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk albums, this double-CD anthology of out-takes, B-sides and demos offers a glimpse of The Associates' complex pop exercises as works-in-progress, with all their girders, pipes and ductwork on display, like some high-tech architectural structure. Basic blueprints of "The Affectionate Punch" and "Club Country" are included, as is an early version of "Party Fears Two" going by the title "I Never Will"; Smiths obsessives, meanwhile, will be fascinated by the glam raunch of "Stephen, You're Really Something", a track stemming from Billy MacKenzie's early-Eighties friendship with Morrissey, which in turn prompted "William, It Was Really Nothing". Clearly influenced by the louche funk-soul of Roxy and Bowie, The Associates were an exotic but anachronistic presence in the new-wave aftermath of punk, although in the extravagant swagger of MacKenzie's voice and the disco busy-ness of Alan Rankine's backings can be discerned the seeds of the nascent New Romantic movement, a scene which never afforded them a comfortable niche. They were, in any case, better than that: though hampered by primitive drum-machine programmes, these tracks bear witness to their musical ambitions, while MacKenzie's lyrics - of emotional confusion, self-doubt, and small lives sketched with mythic vision - recall the more celebrated vignettes of Scott Walker.