This week's album releases

THE 6THS | Hyacinths and Thistles MADONNA | Music CRISTIAN VOGEL | Rescate 137Nova ELIZA CARTHY | Angels & Cigarettes
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The Independent Culture

THE 6THS | Hyacinths and Thistles (Circus)

THE 6THS | Hyacinths and Thistles (Circus)

Besides being one of the most intelligent and gifted songwriters to have appeared in recent years, Stephin Merritt is surely the most prolific: The 6ths is but one of three outlets for his material, alongside the Future Bible Heroes and The Magnetic Fields - the latter of which has this year already released the monumental 69 Love Songs triple-CD, an album which, despite its ambition, contains less filler than most EPs.

The 6ths is his most collaborative ensemble, featuring an intriguing selection of singers - from Clare Grogan to Odetta and Marc Almond to Gary Numan - performing songs written and played by Merritt. The result is not unlike a Sondheim revue, with Merritt's elegant and witty material brought to richly varied life through a series of vocal vignettes.

Momus and Neil Hannon are probably his closest UK soulmates, and both play their parts perfectly here, the former innocently infatuated in the zither-speckled "As You Turn To Go", while the latter brings his suavest smoking-jacket tones to "The Dead Only Quickly", Merritt's Noël Coward-ly attack on reincarnation: "The dead only quickly decay/ They don't go about being born and reborn/ And rising and falling like soufflé/ The dead only quickly decay."

There's abundant wit too, in the way Merritt plays with one's expectations of certain voices - sometimes playing to strengths, sometimes going against type. You can imagine, for instance, the relish that Marc Almond brings to the opening lines of the tiki-exotica pastiche "Volcana!" - "Tahitian hashish and a vermilion moon/ Impure kiss of orchids she's waiting for you" - though Gary Numan's unusually tender delivery of "The Sailor In Love With The Sea" will probably come as quite a surprise. Likewise, ex-Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould's baritone croon on the wistful "He Didn't" reveals a new depth to his vocal talents.

Merritt is particularly adept at acknowledging the subtleties of female voices, using the accents of Dominique A and Mihi Hatori to collocate the exotic pop of "Just Like A Movie Star" and "Lindy-Lou", and letting the lived-in tones of Sixties folkies Melanie and Odetta bring intimations of experience to "I've Got New York" and "Waltzing Me All The Way Home". With her fallen-diva vocal set to poignant wheezing accordion, the latter makes Odetta sound like a female Tom Waits. But for all Merritt's tasteful versatility, it's the eternal verities of pure chart pop that provide the most reliable opportunities, particularly on "Kissing Things", where Sarah Cracknell's perfectly-measured vocal bears out the echoes of Sixties Brill Building pop in the arrangement.

It all adds up to one of the most diversely entertaining releases of recent months - indeed, if there is another album released this year containing as much music as Hyacinths And Thistles, the chances are that Stephin Merritt will be involved in it one way or another.

MADONNA | Music (Maverick)

There's a double-edged irony in the title of Madonna's latest offering, in the way it signifies the effective dissolution of her vocal personality within the music, while containing less actual music than any of her previous albums. There's certainly less memorable music here than before - a situation brought into sharp focus by the climactic appearance of "American Pie", which merely draws one's attention to the alarming absence of comparably compelling melodies in the 10 preceding tracks. The album features Madonna on a French techno trip, working mostly with producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, whose own album - the disingenuously-titled Production - appeared sans fanfare in May. Repeated here from that collection is "Paradise", with Madonna's bilingual narration basking in the sensuous string and marimba tones of Mirwais's groove - though its slow, rather methodical manner is somewhat out of character with the bulk of Music, which relies on fast disco beats, loping synth basslines and the kind of vocoderised vocals that are helping sweep any unnecessary hints of humanity out of contemporary dance music. The hit title-track is typical, with its vocal filter-sweeps and Kraftwerkian synth landscape; at the opposite extreme is "Gone" - one of three tracks remaining from her earlier association with William Orbit - whose reflective, almost folk-rock manner is at odds with the rest of the album.

CRISTIAN VOGEL | Rescate 137Nova (mute)

An expatriate Chilean now resident in Brighton - where he studied 20th-century music at university - electronic soundscaper Cristian Vogel is better known as one-half of mutant funk duo Super-Collider. His solo offering Rescate 137 opens with the murmurous, sub-aquatic ambience of "Underwater Living" before plunging into the taut, elastic breakbeat funk of "Whipaspank" and "Esquina Del Sol" - the aquatic theme sustained with the latter's underwater soul organ stabs and electronic percussion which sounds like a wet dog shaking droplets all over the place. The terse, abbreviated funk rhythms and unashamedly synthetic textures recall the work of Cabaret Voltaire's Richard H Kirk - particularly on the closing "Rescate Freeformed Giggles", where rasps, bleeps, chirps and scratches of electronic noise create an abstract, antiphonal shape over the steady pulse - although a more accurate idea of the sound of Rescate 137 might be gleaned by imagining a collaboration between Prince and Atari Teenage Riot. Even within such parameters, Vogel finds a surprising amount of space to ring various changes in tone and style, from the alien samba of "Crater 8" and the borderline garage mode of "La Isla Piscola" to the jazz-funk of "Grainiak Burn", where the furtive stippling of electronic droplets gradually assumes a shape that is reminiscent of Weather Report. Recommended.

ELIZA CARTHY | Angels & Cigarettes (Warner Bros)

Eliza Carthy's follow-up to the 1998 Mercury Prize-nominated Red Rice finds her initiating a tentative move from her established folkie fanbase to a more mainstream pop constituency - the kind of territory occupied by that other scion of a folk-music family, Kirsty MacColl. The manoeuvre is most evident on the track "Poor Little Me", where ancient (in the form of a traditional fiddle tune) meets modern (in the form of the trip-hop rhythm and production effects) without too grating a gear-change. For the most part, Eliza's fiddling skills have been slightly downplayed in favour of more firmly establishing her singer-songwriter credentials. This point is illustrated on "Beautiful Girl", a song confronting the issue of glamour-industry body-fascism, and songs such as "Train Song" and "The Company Of Men" tracing the grey area between love and lust. Carthy achieves this with a rare emotional frankness - the former skilfully evoking the illicit thrill of youthful experimentation, while the latter offers a refreshingly honest expression of misunderstood carnality. With musical settings ranging from "The Company of Men"'s convoluted harp and string arrangement to others on which Eliza's band is augmented by guests such as Van Dyke Parks, BJ Cole and her dad, Martin Carthy, the result is a varied and commendable album, which goes some way towards meeting its objectives.

AT THE DRIVE-IN | Relationship of Command (Grand Royal)

Hotly touted as the Next Big Thing to sweep across the Atlantic from America, At The Drive-In traffic in the same kind of "smart" hardcore as their Texan colleagues ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, a sort of punk-inflected metal thrash streaked with sinister mystery and a particularly visceral line in imagery. Their guitarists opt for the angular atonalities of US proto-punk legends Live Skull and Big Black, which is promising, whilst vocalist Cedric Bixler bawls with the intensity of a man forced, "A Boy Named Sue"-style, to go through life as a Cedric. And life sure is dismal in El Paso, judging by Cedric's preferred lyrical tone, in which images of contagion ("Quarantined"), wasteland ("Mannequin Republic") and violent death (most tracks) predominate. His laryngitic delivery, meanwhile, suggests an empathy more with the military than the musical. At its best, the group emulates the oblique thrash'n'wail of Jane's Addiction, though Cedric's indefatigable caterwauling renders most of the album more like Rage Against the Machine, or a less mechanistic Nine Inch Nails. The most distinctive track is "Invalid Litter Dept", on which his blank-verse declamation of nasty business in the lone-star state is interspersed with a chirpy chorus of "Dancing on the corpse's ashes"; I'm none the wiser as to the source of Cedric's complaint, but thankfully, not living in Texas, I don't have to care.

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