This Week's Album Releases

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Dolly Parton | The Grass Is Blue Sugar Hill

Dolly Parton | The Grass Is Blue Sugar Hill

DOLLY PARTON'S career has drifted somewhat during the Nineties, but The Grass Is Blue arrests that drift by the simple expedient of returning to her Tennessee hill-country roots with a sparkling album of bluegrass rave-ups. It's by far the best thing she's done in decades, with a stellar band of top Nashville pickers capable of whipping new life even into Billy Joel's "Travelin' Prayer", which launches the album at a furious pace. Elsewhere, songs like "Cash On The Barrelhead" - the old Louvin Brothers classic favoured by Gram Parsons - and Lester Flatt's "I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open" are given sublime, joyous run-throughs, with the relaxed syncopation of Jerry Douglas' dobro, Jim Mills' banjo and Sam Bush's mandolin driving Miss Dolly along with great verve. The material is drawn largely from country standards like "Train, Train" and "Silver Dagger" - which finds Parton harmonising perfectly with herself - although her own "Steady as the Rain" is as good as any here, the emotion of Dolly's singing cutting cleanly through the dash and dazzle of the music. Recommended.

Lightning Seeds | Tilt Epic

"I THOUGHT there'd be fireworks/ I expected change," sings Ian Broudie in "Sweetest Soul Sensation", one of several potential singles here. No, it's nothing to do with New Labour, despite the theme of unfulfilled expectations; more surprisingly, it couldn't really be applied to Tilt either, because for all its retention of Broudie's copper-bottomed chart-friendliness, his fourth album finds the one-man hit factory in comparatively new territory. It's there right from the opening salvo of "Life's Too Short", the new single, on which Broudie's characteristically wan vocals are allied to a sleek disco backing miles removed from his usual pop classicism. It sounds more like the dance-pop of Pet Shop Boys or New Order, a suspicion reinforced by the Sumner-esque vocal and Madchester baggy-beat of "If Only". It's a brave move for such an established act. But when the most memorable melody on the record (to "I Wish I Was In Love") is borrowed from Fleetwood Mac's "Man of the World", one suspects his pursuit of the new has led Broudie to neglect his natural forte.

Beck | Midnight Vultures Geffen

FOR ALL its melancholy pleasures, last year's relatively straightforward folk-rock offering Mutations lacked the eclectic texture and disjointed topography of Beck's earlier hip-hop blues style, so it's a relief to find him back mixing his musical metaphors again in what is posited as the "proper" follow-up to Odelay. The single "Sexxlaws" indicates both the musical and lyrical territory which concerns Beck on the brink of the millennium: razzy brass fanfares punctuate a sort of country-soul backing with discreet techno overtones, while he babbles about "midnight snacks in the mausoleum where the pixillated doctors moan" and wanting to "defy the logic of our sex laws". As the album progresses, it becomes clear that this defiance involves Beck turning into Prince, falsetto voice and all, for a series of bump'n'grind computer-funk work-outs of decidedly lubricious character - with particular interest shown in troilism, judging by the references to ménages-à -trois in "Peaches and Cream" and the concluding "Debra", where he tells shop-assistant Jenny, "...I wanna get with you/And your sister/I think her name is Debra".

The slick, skittish funk of "Mixed Bizness" offers another sortie into Prince territory, with razor-sharp rhythm guitar and neat curlicues of wah-wah, while "Nicotine And Gravy" emulates the enervated funk of Sly Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On. "Get Real Paid" and "Hollywood Freaks" deal with related influences - the former following Kraftwerk's techno innovations, the latter featuring Beck's variant of the West Coast G-Funk style. It's unclear, though, whether his transformation from hip-hop folkie nerd to slavering sex beast is sincere or satirical, a reflection of Beck's own urges or a warning of cultural excesses. Judging by the spectre of death which looms large in some of the songs, and by both the album's working-title Can Smell the VD in the Club Tonite and its final version, the latter seems more the case - though that doesn't prevent these songs serving Eros effectively anyway. There are signs, too, that Beck is maturing both as musician and lyricist: for all the convoluted imagery and surreal sexual metaphor at play here, the best soul couplet is the simplest, when he bathetically implores Debra's sister Jenny, "Lady/Step inside my Hyundai". What woman could resist?

U-God | Golden Arms Redemption Wu-Tang

THE LAST of the Wu-Tang Clan inner circle to go solo - his career having been interrupted by a two-year sentence on gun and drug charges - U-God (aka Golden Arms) struggles to live up to his immodest appellation on Golden Arms Redemption. When a rapper is reduced to using a line like "the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain", one might safely assume that if U-God were in Madrid, he would be mainly getting wet. It's not all as plain as that suggests: with RZA overseeing production, and Raekwon, Method Man and Inspectah Deck chipping in phrases here and there, the album follows the Wu-Tang tradition of impassioned invective, mangled metaphor and its own internal logic. The backing tracks utilise the Wu-Tang blend of bleak string stabs and breakbeats, with only the punchy horns and flanged guitar hook of "Soul Dazzle" providing a propulsive funk injection. It's hard to work out what U-God's on about, except for occasional lines like "Money and crooks/Get out of my face with the funny looks/You're better off studying books". And you know what? He's not wrong.

Ani Difranco | To the Teeth Cooking Vinyl

HER THIRD album this year (following Up Up Up Up Up Up and the Fellow Workers collaboration with Utah Phillips) may be the best yet from the prolific punk-folk activist. It's certainly the most confident realisation so far of Ani DiFranco's current jazz-funk direction, with useful contributions from legendary James Brown saxman Maceo Parker and AFKAP and some spectacular guitar noise in the Marc Ribot/Robert Quine style from Canadian Kurt Swinghammer. The songs cover familiar ground - gun control, age and insularity, romantic complications, anti-abortionist murderers - with DiFranco's usual eye for an argument and ear for an arresting image, such as her observation that "When you're old you fold up like an envelope/ And you mail yourself right inside". And though some tracks are allowed to drift on beyond their optimum length, it's an impressive set which, even in an era overstuffed with Toris and Alanises, marks out DiFranco as the Joni Mitchell of her generation, with a similar blend of emotional investigations and liberal agit-prop sentiments set to folk-jazz arrangements.

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