This week's album releases

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The Independent Culture

WEEN | White Pepper (Mushroom)

WEEN | White Pepper (Mushroom)

Since first meeting at high school some 16 years ago, Dean and Gene Ween (aka Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman) have, it's claimed, written over 1,000 songs together - including such arcane delights as "Mononucleosis" and "Piss Up A Rope" - though it's safe to say that they've never put together a dozen tracks quite as engaging as those which comprise White Pepper.

Previous albums such as The Mollusk and 12 Golden Country Greats have reflected the duo's apparently encyclopaedic knowledge (and love) of musical forms, though their fondness for pastiche and their tendency to switch styles from album to album has no doubt hampered Ween's accession to the mainstream (their only chart placing coming in 1993 when "Push The Little Daisies" secured the approbation of Beavis & Butthead). That situation deserves to change with White Pepper, an album which seeks to reclaim for a new millennium the innocent, long-derided glories of Seventies rock and pop, as reflected in its compact length (a trim 40 minutes, free of filler), its instantly memorable melodies, its easy, unashamed facility with a range of musical vocabularies, and the philosophical bent of its lyrics.

It's their most eclectic album yet, slipping nonchalantly from the steel pans and Spanish guitar of the Jimmy Buffett pastiche "Bananas & Blow" to the finely-chiselled speed-garage thrash of "Stroker Ace" to the unbearably poignant mellotron and ice-cream van instrumental "Ice Castles", all without dropping a stitch.

Some songs seem to evoke gestalt shifts of influence, most notably the single "Even If You Don't", which one moment resembles the Plastic Ono Band with McCartney on vocals - you keep expecting it to slip into the chorus of "Instant Karma" - and the next the symphonic pop of ELO, itself a Beatles derivative. But whether second- or third-hand, their sources are impeccably rendered throughout, while the instrumental detail picked out in mellotron, electric sitar, pedal-steel guitar and the like is entirely de trop, building up a series of arrangements that reflect the Seventies' brief rapprochement between miasmic psychedelia and slick, studio-bound commercialism, but with a freshness that's firmly of today.

As ever, there's a lurking suspicion that Ween are smirking behind their hands as they revive memories of Gerry Rafferty, Steely Dan and Styx, but the plethora of potential singles scattered among these 12 tracks stands as irrefutable evidence of their commitment to developing songs beyond the sum of their influences. The result is a collection as passionate as it is affectionate, unquestionably one of the albums of the year.

AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD | Madonna (Domino)

It's not so much the trail of dead that signals the presence of these latest darlings of the US indie post-punk scene, as the sheer yawning apathy induced by their outmoded grunge thrashes. Hailing from Austin, Texas, but temperamentally a world away from that town's predominantly country-rock aspect, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead straddles the narrow divide that separates the more solemn end of punk from the grey torpor of post-rock. What this means in effect is that for each song, you get a few minutes of guitar maelstrom and unintelligibly hoarse vocals, winding down at its conclusion into a meandering trail, not of the dead, but of small ambient noises, reversed loops and distant mutterings. Except, that is, for the track "A Perfect Teenhood", which ends with "Fuck you!" shouted a few dozen times - one of the few moments of lyrical legibility on Madonna. The most complete track is "Aged Dolls", a seven-minute post-rock excursion featuring bursts of apocalyptic guitar clangour which clears every now and then to reveal a parched wasteland quietly picked over by wandering piano and violin. Other than that, this turns out to be a long and largely unrewarding trail to follow.

XTC | Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (Cooking Vinyl)

In the seven-year hiatus occasioned by their self-imposed industrial action following 1992's splendid Nonsuch, XTC's Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding stockpiled enough material for four albums, eventually opting to release two albums showcasing discrete sides of their work. The first of these, last year's widely acclaimed Apple Venus, was a touch too rococo for my taste, but Wasp Star represents a glorious affirmation of the core XTC values - winning melodies, velcro hooks, articulate lyrics, soaring harmonies and meticulously-detailed arrangements. The infectious humour has been leavened somewhat by personal travails, with Partridge in particular musing about the nature of being and attraction, the impermanence of love, the inscrutability of women and the cyclical nature of life; but this is no bad thing, actively adding to the album's depth. Moulding's songs are less personal but equally well-crafted, especially the bluesy elegy for a shutdown venue "Boarded Up", with its lovely touches of wan harmonium.Like Ween, XTC have an embarrassment of stylistic riches at their disposal, employed here with a restraint and sureness of touch that was sometimes lacking on Apple Venus. It's a superb work which, in any other week, would surely be album of the week.

BRITNEY SPEARS | Oops!... I Did It Again (Jive)

For all the copper-bottomed names associated with New Princess Of Pop Britney's second album - among them song-writing hit machine Diane Warren and midas-touch producers Mutt Lange and Rodney Jerkins - it's the Scandinavian connections that continue to dominate her sound. Most of the tracks are precision-tooled in the finest Swedish laboratories by the likes of Max Martin and Rami, who have stuck tenaciously to the formula which has so far accrued their charge a phenomenal 28 million sales. So slavish is their devotion to Britney's past glories that the title-track is about as close to a carbon-copy of "Baby One More Time" as could be achieved without cloning: I Did It Again indeed, though it's questionable whether it was necessary to do that little vocal catch quite as many times again in the first half-minute. Compared with the Swedes' grasp of her trademark marionette bounce, the hitherto faultless swingbeat auteur Rodney Jerkins is mismatched on a mechanical cover of the Stones' "Satisfaction", which moves inelegantly from Valley Girl phone conversation ("Omigawd!", etc) to moans about people frowning over "how tight my skirt should be" - clearly, a pressing issue for teens, judging by its reappearance two songs later in "What U See (Is What U Get)".

PEARL JAM | Binaural (Epic)

The choice of the usually roots-rock-oriented Tchad Blake (Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega) as producer of Pearl Jam's sixth studio album suggests a rather more pronounced change of direction than is actually evident on Binaural. True, there are more lighter moments here than usual, with Stone Gossard in particular opening up a vein of hitherto unglimpsed tenderness with such hymns to the redemptive power of womanhood as "Thin Air" and "Of The Girl". But Eddie Vedder's permanently bruised outsider spirit is always at hand to rein back any suggestions of contentment or (perish the thought!) happiness that may creep in. "Grievance" is typical, an anti-corporate rant that cautions "Have a drink, they're buying/ Bottom of bottle of denial... For every tool they lend us/ A loss of independence". PJ fans may feel they've been here before, though elsewhere there are signs that Vedder's anhedonia and depression may be in remission, both in the maturity and conciliatory spirit of songs such as "Evacuation", "Light Years" and "Sleight Of Hand", and the sheer adrenalin drive of "Breakerfall" and "God's Dice". Indeed, it may well be their best album, though whether it's quite what their audience requires at this juncture is less certain.

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