ROCK / Albums: As Young as you feel: Andy Gill on recycling, saving the planet, decadence and hedonism

NEIL YOUNG

Unplugged

(Reprise 9362-45310-2)

THOSE who caught his breathtaking solo acoustic concert at Hammersmith Odeon a couple of years back will be well aware of just how powerful the unaccompanied Neil Young can be, but even they might be surprised at some of the strategies by which he re-styles old songs in new livery here.

The earliest, and perhaps best, example is 'Mr Soul', transformed with deep, throaty harmonica into a country-blues which bests the original Buffalo Springfield version, losing its rock guitars but gaining new depths of brooding discontent.

It's some measure of the strength of Young's catalogue that he can release what are effectively two live career compilations in about as many years and still not come close to exhausting his oeuvre: Unplugged shares only one track with Weld, 'Like A Hurricane', but the versions are chalk and cheese.

Here, the song is presented with a naked piety, transformed by sombre harmonium accompaniment into something close to a hymn. Elsewhere, several other old favourites - 'Pocahontas', 'Helpless', 'The Needle and the Damage Done' - are scattered among the Harvest Moon material that closes the show, with Young joined by that album's soft country-rock band and old sidekick Nils Lofgren to fill out the sound.

Lofgren is especially effective in throwing new light on the older songs: 'Transformer Man' loses its vocoder, but gains a sparkling autoharp, while the addition of wistful accordion to 'Helpless' is particularly appropriate for a song about the paralysing power of nostalgia. There have been several fine 'Unplugged' albums in recent years, most notably from Clapton and Rod, but any future sessions will have to go some way to beat this.

JAMIROQUAI

Emergency on Planet Earth

(Sony Soho Square 474069 2)

HE's young, he's cute, he's a great dancer, and he wears a big furry hat: in short, he's a star, which is why Sony has signed Jason Kaye (aka Jamiroquai) to the kind of eight-album deal unheard of in these times of fiscal stringency. With two hit singles already, they must be well pleased with their investment - though if he's to reach the end of that deal, Kaye would do well to invest in a record collection that goes beyond the strict confines of early Seventies soul and jazz-funk, particularly Stevie Wonder; there's even a track here called 'Music of the Mind', an instrumental that's almost as vacuous as the average Bob James number.

Bubbly electric piano and spacy Seventies synthesiser sounds predominate in the Jamiroquai sound, bustled along by swaggering funk bass and crisp drumming. At its best - the fuzz-bass riff and martial snare drumming of 'Revolution', and the more Southern-soul swampy guitar licks and Toussaint-style horn fills of 'Whatever It Is, I Just Can't Stop' - the album soars above any previous Brit-soul release, with Kaye himself demonstrating a relaxed, engaging vocal style that's as elastic as his dancing.

The songs, though, too closely echo the vocabulary of an earlier era, with innumerable feel-good invocations to fight the power, save the planet and think about the children. If the proclamations are the same, then so, presumably, are the problems; and if the problems are the same, to what effect were the original proclamations?

GARY CLAIL

Dreamstealers

(Perfecto 74321 11920 2)

LITTLE ANNIE

Short and Sweet

(On-U Sound LP60CD16)

FOR dub ranter Gary Clail, our problems can't be solved by simply singing nice sentiments. Far better to shout nasty ones.

'Casual violence, endemic fear / If there is a god, he doesn't live here,' he announces in 'No Comfort in the City', the opening track to Dreamstealers, before chasing the chimerae of dignity, honesty and self- respect through 'These Things Are Worth Fighting For'.

Clail gets tougher and angrier as the album proceeds, railing variously against decadence, designer drugs, the increasing atomisation of society, and the sell-off of council houses - this last apparently based on his father's personal experience, though the resultant hardship could perhaps be better expressed than in the deathless line, 'The council no longer maintain his rabbit hutch.' The bastards]

If Clail relies on the most direct address, his On-U stablemate Little Annie - formerly anarcho-punk Annie Anxiety - opts for a more insidious approach.

Short And Sweet is a throwback of sorts to the early Eighties Ze Records formula: mutant dub disco fronted by an idiosyncratic diva mapping out a landscape of alienated hedonism. Using a drily sardonic tone and a neat turn of phrase she captures the bleak vacuity of club culture with an air of enervation that reaches Laurie Anderson-esque heights on 'Prisoners of Paradise', a numb depiction of new- age hell. Recommended for those who like their disco leavened with a little guilt.

RUN C&W

Into the Twangy-First Century

(MCA MCAD-10727)

RUN C&W is ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon and a few pals masquerading, Wilbury-like, as the Burns Brothers, a hillbilly combo who transform classic soul songs like 'In the Midnight Hour' and 'Sweet Soul Music' into bluegrass rave-ups: sort of a redneck variant on Dread Zeppelin.

What's surprising is how genuinely effective this treatment is: there's clearly a deep, abiding love of both soul and country in operation here, as Run C&W locate the Appalachian mining-country poor-white-trash spirit in 'Working in the Coal Mine', and trace the three-part ascending chorus of 'My Girl' with true Nashville nasality. Some tracks are built for this kind of customisation - there's always been a pronounced rustic slant to Rufus Thomas's 'Walkin' the Dog', for instance - but others defy logic in their adaptation.

The least effective tracks are those which try to smooth over the fragmentary structures of James Brown compositions, while on the best, Leadon's banjo works minor miracles in taking the Jeff Beck part in 'Superstition' and the horn hook to 'Hold On, I'm Comin' '. Apart from the facile parody of 'Achy Breaky Heart' ('Itchy Twitchy Spot'), it's enjoyable stuff which reflects the sleevenote dedications to those famous duos Sam & Dave, Flatt & Scruggs, and Stan & Ollie, in fairly equal measure.

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