This week's album releases

SHAWN LE | Monkey Boy BJORK | Selmasongs KYLIE MINOGUE | Light Years ECHOBOY | Volume 2


SHAWN LE | Monkey Boy (We Love You)

SHAWN LE | Monkey Boy (We Love You)

Having had one album recorded and shelved - an experience he likens to "somebody erasing three years of your life" - new soul auteur Shawn Lee resolved to keep more of the process under his own control the next time out, signing to dance label Wall Of Sound as the flagship artist of their We Love You offshoot.

Like Macy Gray, who suffered a similar setback at the outset of her career, Lee has profited from the delay, polishing his songwriting skills to the point where Monkey Boy contains a good four or five potential singles. Being a true solo artist, however - his credits here number 23 separate instruments, not counting "found sounds and noises and other contraptions", but including such soul necessities as bouzouki, washboard and omnichord - he's found temptation hard to resist. There are certain songs on which an outside producer would surely have reined in Lee's more outlandish arrangement ideas. The mouth-percussion panning from speaker to speaker in the later stages of "I Can't Save You", for instance, spoils the mood of regretful resignation carefully built up by the acoustic guitar and Bacharach flugelhorn, like a flashy camera-move detracting from the mood of a movie.

But it's that same willingness to try something new that gives Monkey Boy its unique character, as Lee blends together rock, blues, soul and hip-hop influences into an intriguing soul stew akin to the Isley Brothers' post-Motown style. "Disappearance of the Man" most clearly presents him as the inheritor of that Seventies soul-protest tradition, with stark strings casting shadows over jazzy flute and echoplex bass as Lee enquires: "Where are the fathers of these children? What kind of future are we building?" The serpentine "Hangin' By A Thread" also owes much to that era, especially to the baroque soul shapes of Lamont Dozier, its densely-layered arrangement smothering the singer's hopes like a forest of doubt. By comparison, the opening track, "Kill Somebody", is bang up-to-date, its acoustic blues guitar and trip-hop beat comparable to Little Axe or Moby.

Elsewhere, Lee's fancy takes him into Sergio Mendes soul-samba territory ("Happiness"), and a place lit with the darkling grace of Jeff Buckley ("Don't Trust Men"). The most bizarre extension of his abilities, however - and all the more impressive for being recorded on a four-track machine - is "8 Million Ways To Die", a cautionary sermon on excess delivered with the wry candour of Brecht and Weill, the cabaret gloom of Lee's melodica bringing an authentic pang of regret to its crazed-funfair waltz riff. It may have taken him longer than expected to reach the public ear, but it's been well worth the wait; and with the scope and scale of his ambitions, there's no telling what Shawn Lee could achieve in the future.

BJORK | Selmasongs (One Little Indian)

Having a medical aversion to the Dogme movement's shaky hand-held camerawork, it's unlikely that I'll ever get to see Lars Von Trier's musical Dancer In The Dark, which makes deciphering the half-hour of music and songs on this soundtrack album difficult, if not impossible. Then again, it's debatable whether searching for sense in a song like the Björk/ Thom Yorke duet "I've Seen It All" makes much sense in the first place, with cryptic exchanges such as "You haven't seen elephants, kings or Peru... how about China, have you seen the Wall?/ All walls are fine, as long as they don't fall." Or how about "107 Steps", where an enthralled Björk counts said footsteps over a dramatic string arrangement, managing to make it sound like the most romantic thing ever? "In The Musicals" is more obviously about the relationship between movie fantasy and real life, in a Manuel Puig/Woody Allen way. Ultimately it's the music which provides most of the interest in Selmasongs - a blend of hyperactive strings illuminated by the twinkling glockenspiel tones of Björk's celesta, and set to rhythms drawn from industrial sources: the factory sounds of "Cvalda", the rattling train-wheels of "I've Seen It All", and in "In The Musicals", what sounds like squeaky sneakers in a basketball court. It's a sonic texture every bit as fragmented as the cover photo, and just as uncompromising in its attitude.

KYLIE MINOGUE | Light Years (Parlophone)

Always a hand-me-down Cliff to Madonna's Elvis, Kylie has never successfully made the jump from singles to albums artist, for all her early-Nineties "mature" period and subsequent disco-diva realignment. Clearly stung by the disastrous performance of her Deconstruction albums, she's pulling out all the stops on this Parlophone début - duetting with Robbie Williams on "Kids", drafting in Robbie's co-writer/ producer Guy Chambers and Spice Girls backroom boy Richard Stannard to ensure she has that contemporary pop sound down pat. She's even posing in nothing more encumbering than a few conveniently-arranged wisps of chiffon to make sure she catches the eye of radio producers. The result is that, despite co-writing nine of the 14 tracks, Kylie's effectively sacrificed such character as she once possessed, sounding largely indistinguishable from the rest of the pop product that whizzes by with such indecent haste these days. But while several of these songs will doubtless follow "Spinning Around" into the singles charts, their accumulation as an album detracts from their individual impact, as the flighty disco rhythms dissolve into each other. Most amusing moment: Kylie's French accent on the execrable "Your Disco Needs You", a Minogue/Williams/Chambers composition that sounds like a Village People leftover.

ECHOBOY | Volume 2 (Warner Bros)

Like Jamie Liddell and Cristian Vogel, Richard "Echoboy" Warren is one of a younger generation of synthesiser musicians continuing the punk-primitivist electronic tradition of Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire. The sleeve photos of lift interiors mirror the cramped, claustrophobic tone of the music - a dark well of sound from which his simple melodies struggle tenaciously to establish themselves. When they do, as on "Sudwestfunk No.5" and the single "Telstar Recovery", the effects can be thrilling. From its tube-train ambience intro, the latter bursts into a pounding motorik groove of formidable power and character. The album's scope is impressive, ranging from the fizz and whirr of the techno travelogue "Make The City The Sound" to the melodica dub-dirge of "Schram And Sheddle 262", with its stereo drum tracks slipping in and out of sync. "Siobhan", meanwhile, blends various simple elements - a couple of alternating piano chords, some backwards guitar, melodica and sundry electronic wisps and wheezes - into a fascinating piece of quizzical, uncertain temperament. The best track, though, is the opener "Turning On", where Warren applies his electronics with the maverick spirit of the Velvets as he sets out his musical manifesto. "Don't care about the New Age," he sings, "it's like turning back the page - we need to be turning on."

WONDERMINTS | Bali (Sanctuary)

The four Wondermints form the core of Brian Wilson's current backing band, so it's no surprise to find that Bali - released in Japan in 1998, but only now appearing over here - should exhibit such a thorough grasp of classic pop sounds and styles. Sometimes a little too thorough. "My Id/Entity" is as smug as its title, a tricksy little piece that sounds like The Doors doing Brubeck on electric harpsichord. "In And Around Greg Lake", too, suffers an excess of attention, marrying a Thunderclap Newman-style piano riff with the kind of sleek, white soul vocals peculiar to Seventies AOR acts such as Chicago and REO Speedwagon. Elsewhere in the album's 13 tracks, Bacharach horns, Queenly pomp, Who bombast and Beach Boys harmonies (of course) arrange themselves in orderly fashion beneath the crisp glaze of Beatlisms - the stock-in-trade of all pop classicists - while references to Sixties Brazilian psychedelicists Os Mutantes ("Arnaldo Said") and beat character Brion Gysin ("Dreamachine") keep the hip quotient up. It's fearsomely impressive stuff, highly detailed, well recorded - but strangely uninvolving. Wondermints have all the facility of Ween, but lack their grasp of pop's innate simplicity - so often its most compelling characteristic. A touch too close to prog-rock, but Jellyfish fans should find plenty here to enjoy.

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