NEW ALBUMS / Heaven knows he's miserable now: Morrissey and Youssou N'Dour widen their horizons; American avant-rockers stay at home

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The Independent Culture
MORRISSEY

'Your Arsenal'

(EMI 07777 99794 2 4)

ON WHAT is, despite its faults, probably his best solo album, Morrissey moves furthest yet from the old Smiths style, opting in places for a dullard hard rock sound featuring American-style rock guitar riffing. It's not a complete break - the single 'We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful' is safe, copybook Smithstyle, down to the ringing arpeggios and laughing scat break - but there are times on 'Your Arsenal' when you might be listening to a typical bunch of back-combed Californian shag- heads, were it not for the unmistakable fey flutter of that voice.

Indeed, on 'Glamorous Glue', a pedestrian stomp smeared with raunchy slide guitar, Morrissey effectively acknowledges the move to a new style - 'We look to Los Angeles for the language we use / London is dead' - though London never figured too highly in his worldview anyway. The old influences still make their presence felt, however, most notably on 'Certain People I Know', which makes an almost country-rock groove out of an old T Rex riff; and Morrissey's lyrical position remains virtually unaltered since day one of his career, with tracks such as 'We'll Let You Know' and 'Seasick, Yet Still Docked' courting the exaggerated self-pity of adolescence quite shamelessly.

This last is musically the album's most interesting track, an evocation of the title in which loudly miked acoustic guitar strums over a backdrop of Orb- esque ethereal doldrums, with little curls of lead guitar offering discreet embellishment. It's spoilt, though, by Morrissey's fairly nauseating pandering to the dismal self-regard of his audience: it's almost as if he wanted to be the name at the top of the suicide note - which is, admittedly, a neat twist on the usual celebrity deal, in which the star would die for his fans. The closing 'I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday' and 'Tomorrow' attempt to lift the album's flagging spirits and end on a positive note, but their comparative inarticulacy suggests Morrissey is still more practised, and more comfortable, in the ways of self-pity. Which is not, I think, the noblest of artistic positions.

YOUSSOU N'DOUR

Eyes Open

(Columbia 471186 2)

ANOTHER Youssou N'Dour album, dumped on the market with rather less promotional muscle than might have been expected from his new label, despite the obvious class of the music and a currently high-ish profile for world music, thanks to WOMAD. Recorded for Spike Lee's 40 Acres And A Mule Musicworks company, it's a dazzling piece of work, bursting with all the classic values of the best African music - sublime musicianship, exuberant spirit and rhythmic delirium - but with a level of sophistication matched by few, on any continent.

N'Dour's band, The Super Etoile, is sensitive and inspired in equal parts, effortlessly negotiating complex jazz-pop arrangements, whilst Youssou himself has never sung better, nor on more infectious tunes. Dealing by turns with pan-African brotherhood, cultural fidelity, the conflict of rural and urban values, the impact of television in the developing third world, and sundry other considerations of modern times, he offers what gentle good advice he can in that magical tenor whose soulful, yearning elisions seem to carry the entire hope of a continent. The result is a landmark comparable to Salif Keita's Soro in its ambition and sophistication; indeed, its only shortcoming is its extreme length (75 minutes), a characteristic it shares with too many albums these days - though in this case at least it's not attained through excess out-take padding.

SONIC YOUTH

Dirty

(DGC DGCD24485)

MINISTRY

Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs

(Sire / Warner Bros

7599-26727-2)

FOR SUCH a supposedly progressive, challenging musical form, American avant-rock is a surprisingly cumbersome, conservative beast. The much-feted Sonic Youth, on the evidence of Dirty, have barely changed at all stylistically in a little over a decade; they've just refined their shaggy, dissonant sound to a higher level of competence.

Under the gaze of Nirvana producer Butch Vig - the first time an outside influence has wielded such influence over their music - they've continued the move, begun with 1990's Goo LP, towards a more satisfying, finished type of album, largely eschewing the annoying noise fragments that littered previous records. Oddly, though, they've not lost that quality of appearing to have just picked up their instruments for the first time, which can be quite endearing in its punky enthusiasm - though only in small quantities. Dirty begins like it really means business, with '100 per cent' and 'Swimsuit Issue' pounding along with a kind of compact fury, but then the impetus drops, and their faults - particularly the ponderousness of Kim Gordon's bass lines, and the group's lack of a decent singer - glare through.

Compared to Sonic Youth's gun-metal grey, matt-finish sound, the music of Chicago duo Ministry seems polished, streamlined, and deepest, deepest black - appropriately so, it being a development of the generic Chicago hardcore style perfected by Big Black in the early Eighties.

Psalm 69 features a slick but rasp-rough metal / sampling crossover in which grungey guitar phrases have their power multiplied by repetition, looped to fast drum beats, with growly vocals muttering who-knows-what calumnies over the top, and a smattering of vocal samples from outside sources adds diversity. The title-track, for instance, demonstrates the usual avant-rock affection for the ritualistic rhythm and rhetoric of televangelist preachers, whilst on 'N W O', a Gulf- happy George Bush proclaims the birth of a new world order. In other words, it's a blend of the usual sounds and the usual suspects. But it's hugely exhilarating nevertheless, even on the slower, more expansive 'Scarecrow', which bears a dismaying resemblance to an early Black Sabbath riff - though I guess that's the price they pay for growing up in the American Midwest in the mid- Seventies.

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