NEW RELEASES

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The Independent Culture
Elton John: Made in England (Mercury, DC/LP/tape) and Stevie Wonder: Conversa-tion Peace (Motown, CD/LP/tape). OK, so I have a few reservations. Three of Elton's new songs sound like "Believe", "Pain" sounds like "Sympathy for the Devil", "Belfast" is the worst Troubles ballad ever, and Bernie Taupin's lyrics seem to have come from a concise rhyming dictionary. "Lies", for instance, goes: "Some lie about who they love / Some lie about the truth / Some lie to save their lives / Some lie about their youth" (well, it had to be either that or "their tooth"). Another song, no prizes for guessing the single-word title, goes: "Pain is love / Pain is pure / Pain is sickness / Pain is [manure, perhaps? A skewer? No, it's got to be . . .] the cure." OK, so I have a lot of reservations. And yet, just as the chances of a respectable albbum seem as realistic as Elton's hair, Reg strikes back with those thick, chunky, classic pop melodies we know and love. Ten of the tracks here are accessible enough to be hit singles. The arrangements are expertly done, especially the twangy chimes of guitar and George "Beatle" Martin's strings. It's pure pop, with all the positive and negative connotations the term carries - and if nothing else, it's much better than The Lion King. Stevie Wonder is another worthy old pro who has no more chance of matching his former glories than Elton John does. But as Conversation Peace is his first album proper since 1987, he might have made a more aggressive stab at it. The record contains 13 songs (a couple of which he could have ditched) given a sophisticated swingbeat sheen. Wonder can outcroon any swingbeater you care to mention, but the album still suffers from the limitations of the genre: melodies take a back seat to the quietly bubbling dance backing, and only a few songs catch you hook, line and chorus. Wonder's philosophy goes as far as sunshine and holding hands, but it is rendered with an intelligence that puts Taupin's clichs in the shade. "My Love is With You", for instance, is a kind of Ghost meets Boyz 'N the Hood story, and on "Take the Time Out" he sings: "Don't say what you won't do, if for days / You had no food to eat; / Nor extremes you won't go, for a bed, shoes, / Or if your baby needed heat. / You do not have the right to prejudge." If only all swingbeat were so thoughtful. Nicholas Barber

The Prestige/Folklore Years, Vols 1-4 (Big Beat/Fantasy, CD only). Best known for its albums by modern jazz musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, Bob Weinstock's New York-based Prestige label diversified during the early Sixties, setting up a special sub-division to record performers plucked from the buzzing folk clubs of New York, Boston and Chicago. The A&R men who signed artists for Prestige/Folklore never found the Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary to give them a breakthrough into the commercial mainstream, so the label lasted a mere four years - long enough, however, to make important recordings by the sort of people who might have been found on the bill at Gerde's Folk City in the hootenanny era. Volume 1, subtitled "All Kinds of Folks", has the best stuff: Ramblin' Jack Elliott's "Railroad Bill", Jean Redpath's gorgeous "The Fife Overgate", Eric Von Schmidt's "Joshua Gone Barbados", Bonnie Dobson's "She's Like the Swallow" and three tracks by the young Tom Rush. Volume 2 concentrates on the blues influence, Volume 3 has the gospel and country material, and Volume 4 presents Elliott, Dobson, Pete Seeger and others at the 1962 Philadelphia Folk Festival. This isn't deathless stuff, by any means, but what it does have is a marvellous sense of innocence and discovery. Richard Williams

David Torn: Tripping Over God (CMP, CD/ tape). Where James Blood Ulmer examines the blues side of Jimi Hendrix, David Torn opts to investigate the muse of the space cowboy. Which, on this solo album, means music that drifts and swirls, fuzzboxes pushed to Warp Factor 10, over a collage of noise elements. If you took Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun" and removed all the recognisable melody, harmony and rhythm, this is what you'd get: something nebulous and narcotic, not recommended to the faint of heart. RW

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