This Week's Album Releases

HEAR'SAY | Popstars
I AM KLOOT | Natural History
GORILLAZ | Gorillaz
TRICK DADDY | Thugs Are Us

Popstars (Polydor)

HEAR'SAY | Popstars (Polydor)

You have to hand it to the Svengali committee that controls Hear'Say, cheekily giving their charges a band name suggesting the exact opposite of the process by which they actually achieved recognition; rubbing our noses in the artificiality of it all. Some observers were surprised at the success of their All Saints-lite single, though after mere months of primetime television coverage and the slobbering attentions of the tabloids, Popstars has always been less a musical endeavour than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, it's hard not to marvel at just how efficiently the pop sausage-machine can work when primed with enough pre-release promotion. Because heaven knows, there's precious little musical interest to be found on the quintet's debut album, which strenuously avoids any strategies that haven't already been thoroughly tried and tested by the likes of Steps and S Club 7.

What's particularly sad about it is the way that Danny - the Mel C of the group, if you know what I mean - has been required to shoehorn his distinctive talent into the drably predictable confines of these by-numbers songs. A shame, too, that Papa John Phillips won't be around to enjoy the royalties from Monday, Monday: now, there was a man who knew how to put together a vocal harmony group and innovate. Just imagine!

ROD STEWART | Human (Atlantic)

Following the comparatively lacklustre performance of 1998's too-obvious covers collection When We Were The Young Boys, Rod's first album for Atlantic finds him hunting in less well-charted waters. Only a couple of songs here - Curtis Mayfield's "It Was Love That We Needed", and a dirty-boogie version of Prince's "Peach" - are in any way familiar, with Rod looking instead to younger writers like Connor Reeves, Macy Gray and Gregg Alexander for material. The latter simply applies his New Radicals formula to the single "I Can't Deny It", but elsewhere on Human there's evidence of a more apposite makeover shrewdly refurbishing Rod in modern R&B upholstery: the acoustic guitar, keyboard washes and crisp drum programme of "Loveless", for instance, recall the swingbeat production style of Rodney Jerkins, as do the stalking bass and stuttering hi-hat of "Human" itself. The most striking track is "Don't Come Around Here", an intriguing duet with the breathy-toned Helicopter Girl which finds them yearning for "tinsel Motown", whatever that is. The most unusual locution, though, is the title track's, "Who am I - just a chemical solution caught in evolution, only living to survive?" - while the Macy Gray-penned "Smitten" merely affirms that there are certain words that even Rod can't bring to life.

I AM KLOOT | Natural History (We Love You)

It's hard these days - well, this week, certainly - to find a new, authentic pop voice, one that doesn't regard the artform as just a dilettante hobby or a machine to be cynically manipulated for financial gain. In frontman and lyricist John Bramwell, Manchester combo I Am Kloot possess such a voice, one individual enough to help gloss over the band's spartan musical style, which at times resembles an acoustic Stereophonics.

The I Am Kloot sound is what older readers will recognise as folk-rock, with Bramwell's acoustic guitar and vocals supported by a jazzy rhythm section (drummer Andy Hargreaves and bassist Pete Jobson) which recalls the languid likes of Tim Buckley and Nick Drake. His songs, though, are a far cry from their angelic romanticism, being firmly rooted in the mulch of everyday dolour and depression. Bramwell admits as much when, taking a swipe at metropolitan types ("a big-headed bunch, y'know what I mean?") in "Morning Rain", he assures us "I'm the morning rain/It's me again/I won't go away". The weather features strongly on Natural History, with blue skies, a rarely-glimpsed promise of greener grass and rain an ever-present mood indicator. "Is there a storm coming, or are we just another shower?" Bramwell asks in "Storm Warning", neatly outlining a Manchester state of mind corresponding to his hangdog Lancs delivery.

There's something of Billy Bragg in Kloot's devotion to the downtrodden and disenfranchised, though Bramwell's songs are spiked with sharp, sometimes disturbing images that speak of deeper psychological crises and more ambivalent attitudes - as when, for instance, the fatalistic co-dependency anthem "Twist" sprouts the lines "There's blood on your legs/ I love you/Twist, snap/ I love you". Is the blood there naturally, accidentally, or through violence? Likewise, is the smitten narrator of "86 TVs" a stalker, or just a security guard monitoring a bank of CCTV screens? It's in these kinds of troubling uncertainties that their appeal resides.

Musically, I Am Kloot keep everything as uncluttered as possible, with Hargreaves' brushed snare and jazz tempi providing a light, malleable foundation for Bramwell's arpeggiated chords and the tiniest, most discreet smudges of slide-guitar. Despite such limitations, the trio cover a surprising amount of ground stylistically, from the desultory music-hall lope of "Twist" to the ersatz Bacharach ennui of "Sunlight Hits The Snow", the slow-burning euphoria of "Because" and the elegant mystery of "Loch", an atmospheric guitar instrumental reminiscent of both Chris Isaak and Wheat. But crucially, rather than just demonstrating their range, in each case, the song determines the style.

GORILLAZ | Gorillaz (Parlophone)

One might have hoped wacky postmodernism was last century's thing, but Gorillaz suggests otherwise. Presented to the world through cartoonist Jamie ( Tank Girl) Hewlett's teen-outlaw caricatures, complete with artificial "band biog" booklet, Gorillaz is actually a Damon Albarn side-project collaboration with engineer Dan The Automator, rapper Del Tha Funky Homosapien and Cibo Matto singer Miho Hatori - all of whose names shame their fictional monikers 2D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodles. Sadly, the package also shames the product: there's a huge disparity between the style and sizzle promised by Hewlett's punkish graphics (and slogans like "LoFi Thriller" and "Zombie Hip-Hop") and the actual music, which is dub-indie-rock of the most desultory kind - a bit like Blur caught mid-style-change between Pavement and Augustus Pablo modes, with Albarn occasionally affecting a falsetto vocal that's rather less appealing than he might suppose. One can't help but feel short-changed, with only a few tracks - such as the cute Farfisa confection "19-2000" and the twitchy "Man Research" - able to cash the cheques that the artwork writes. Ultimately, it's just as artificial as the Hear'Say album, it just doesn't sound like they had as much fun making it; or - and here's the rub - that it means as much to them.

TRICK DADDY | Thugs Are Us (Atlantic)

As the successes of St Louis' Nelly and New Orleans' Mystikal demonstrate, the once flagging momentum of gangsta-rap is being reinforced by a new generation of talented regional operators. Trick Daddy's Thugs Are Us offers a Florida variant on Mystikal's "Dirty South" style, with Trick and chums such as Duece Poppi, Trina and the aptly-named Migraine covering the usual bases - thug life, coke-dealing, freaky sex - to an irresistible backdrop of twitchy funk grooves. Their peppery, staccato banter can be unwittingly hilarious in its hyperbole but there's a lean, focused power to "Amerika" that punches home its message with maximum impact: "World champion and new MVP/You a nigga/Four degrees and a PhD/You still a nigga". Trick's forte, though, is in devising infectious street-chants like "Pull Over Remix"; its chorus of "Pull over, that ass is too fast" could become as familiar as "Who Let The Dogs Out". (Although I'm not too sure whether the world's quite ready yet for "Have My Cheese".) And for sheer brazenness, you have to admire the breathtakingly disingenuous way Trick opens the album instructing a little kid not to emulate a thug like him, then features a children's choir on the chorus of "I'm A Thug". Is he taking the mickey, or what?

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