This week's album releases

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The Independent Culture

CALEXICO | Hot Rail (City Slang)

CALEXICO | Hot Rail (City Slang)

The sonoran Desert region of southern Arizona which spawned Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino is archetypal Western movie territory: a parched landscape of dry brush, boulders, and that distinctive spiny sentinel known as the saguaro cactus. It's a land where America shades imperceptibly into Mexico, a place where the brave and hardy antiheroes of Sam Peckinpah films seek the only freedom they deserve, one fraught with terrible mystery and danger. Where characters like Cable Hogue, celebrated here in ballad form, jealously guard their wells, proudly asserting how they "live out yonder where the snakes and scorpions run", knowing that whatever their ultimate fate, it surely lies beyond the reach of civilised man.

This is very much the landscape evoked by Calexico's music, a strange, evasive blend of country-rock, mariachi trumpets and ambient-jazz shadings which seems to shift genres from track to track, restless as tumbleweed, as if denying anything as definite as roots. In places, one is reminded of a south-west American version of Nick Drake, reflecting on "roads [which] never lead where they're supposed to go"; or even, on the album's best track, "Fade", with its loping jazz bass, muted cornet and the tiniest twinklings of vibraphone illuminating its depths, the folk-jazz of Tim Buckley. If anything, there are even more musical flavours at work in Hot Rail than in 1998's impressive debut The Black Light: studio jams have thrown up oddities like "Mid-Town", a weird blend of pounding Burundi-style drums and quiet guitar distortion, and "16 Track Scratch", in which vari-speeded sound fragments ride what appears to be the "Purple Haze" riff played on double bass. Elsewhere, a field-recording of railroad workers forms the basis of the title-track, and a couple of slow, lugubrious variations on Erik Satie's "Gnossienne No 1" (here puzzlingly retitled "Untitled 2 & 3") are performed on accordion and bass.

Though Calexico's strengths are more instrumental than verbal, Burns in particular is developing apace as a songwriter, with lyrics inspired by things like Tucson's Titan Missile Museum ("Sonic Wind") and TV ("Service And Repair") - the latter a country-rock lament looking on as "a silent nation/ hooked on medication/ stares into a blue flickering light". But instead of seeming like gross technological intrusions into an untamed landscape, somehow they convey much the same sense of isolation and abandonment as the rootless, shifting music which Calexico have really made their own.

THE JAYHAWKS | Smile (Columbia)

Having laboured long and hard in the country-rock salt-mines, Minnesota's Jayhawks finally made their breakthrough with their 1997 "comeback" album Sound of Lies, a work forged from personal cataclysm, offering as it did a detailed account of the simultaneous collapses of the band itself and singer-songwriter Gary Louris's marriage. Out of tribulation came a winning combination of sweet, poignant melodies and burnished harmonies. The title-track of this follow-up seems to signify a more chipper frame of mind, though its strings-drenched AOR sound could as easily be REO Speedwagon as Jayhawks. Elsewhere, the melancholy tone of its predecessor recurs in tracks like "What Led Me To This Town" and "Break In The Clouds", with the pedal steel guitar like a tear rolling down Louris's cheek as he admits, "Sometimes I see my memories/ Like a film that never stops/ Although I know how it ends/ Still I can't help but watch." The same mood of emotional equanimity, of resignation to one's fate, underscores "Life Floats By" and "Broken Harpoon" - the latter using a Moby Dick metaphor to reflect on unfulfilled dreams - but as a result, Smile as a whole lacks the undercurrent of tragedy that made Sound Of Lies so compelling. No pain, no gain.

JEFF BUCKLEY | Mystery White Boy (Columbia)

Yet another stalwart of the French techno scene, Mirwais Ahmadzai has recently acquired the patronage of Madonna and is working on several tracks of her next album. The first fruits of their liaison are included here, on the track "Paradise", where her bilingual narration basks in the sensuous string and marimba tones of Mirwais's groove. But it's not representative of the album as a whole, which finds Mirwais relying more on a dumb, android charm akin to compatriots like Daft Punk and particularly Le Tone, with quirky, inquisitive electronic blips, drastic filter-sweeps and rhythmic squelches borne on slow but steady pulses, like the Clangers on a protest march. The single "Disco Science" is a typical example of this technique, its whiplash snare driving the groove along remorselessly; and on "Definitive Beat", Mirwais demonstrates a firm grasp of that reliable techno strategy of putting a juddering breakbeat through various equalisation and filtration changes, so it looms slowly in and out of focus. It's when he adds his own treated vocals that things get really interesting, however, with the dark, downbeat sentiments of tracks like "Naive Song" and "Junkie's Prayer" ("We want something new... We want drugs... We want to die") adding an undertow of menace to dance culture's hedonist smiley-face.

KING CRIMSON | The ConstruKction of Light (Virgin)

By any standards, Robert Fripp is an exceptional guitarist, technically accomplished and innovatory, as demonstrated by his mesmerising "Frippertronics" pieces and his work with Bowie and Eno. Why, then, should his own band be so turgid and ponderous? Whether essayinga dark, swampy blues like "ProzaKc Blues" or a more complex art-rock piece like "FraKctured", The ConstruKction of Light bears all the tarnished hallmarks of redundant Seventies progrock: the dense, clotted riffing that seems to regard listening pleasure as somehow incidental, if not simply an annoyance; the pointlessly complex polyrhythms; the frantic fretboard exercises; the vocals offered in discrete single words darting from speaker to speaker - a strategy also followed by the guitar parts on the title-track, the two channels serving almost as each others' grace notes. Once again, it's proof that music is far too important tobe left to musicians, who as a rule are overly concerned with performance, with the "how" rather than the "why" of music. Apart from a few isolated moments - notably Trey Gunn's touch-guitar solo on "The World's My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum", which resembles one of Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano pieces - this is quite the most unbearably solipsistic music I have heard in years.