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The Independent Culture
Grant Lee Buffalo

Copperopolis

Slash/London 828 760-2

have made giant strides with this, their third album. The general tenor is still of leftover REMnants from Life's Rich Pageant, earnest folk-rock songs lamenting the lack of political ardour among the band's peers, but recent political developments have helped focus their attention remarkably. This sounds like a substantially more aware group than that which made the patchy Mighty Joe Moon.

In particular, the Oklahoma City bombing has furnished songwriter Grant Lee Phillips with a wake-up call he has heeded well on tracks such as "Crackdown" and the single "Homespun", which echoes the shock felt by many Americans upon finding this outrage was not foreign in origin but a "homespun violent sound". "I'll tell you how it pains to say this ugliness is ours," he sings, warning that "hate is not a lone assailant". But theirs is a more considered response than, say, the burst-boil fury of Rage Against the Machine; even the love songs seem to resonate with a greater tenderness, while Phillips's vignettes of childhood recollections are more finely wrought miniatures of memory.

Musically, too, Copperopolis constitutes a great leap forward from their earlier work, with an expanded palette of textures that includes pump organ, marimba, mellotron and string arrangements, and some beautifully weathered bass clarinet and sax from Ralph Carney on a couple of tracks. Phillips's mannered singing can still get annoying over the course of an album, but this time at least he seems to have a more focused agenda, working to redress the spiritual shortfall of a nation.

The infectious "Dreams" having long since drifted from one's consciousness, Gabrielle returns in decidedly more prosaic form on this eponymous effort. Produced by The Boilerhouse Boys, with a couple of tracks helmed by En Vogue production team Foster & McElroy, it plays to the familiar touchstones of synthetic soul "desire" - vague tropisms of hope, need and doubt, and a view of romance as a battlefield of emotional tribulation.

In places, it's like an assertiveness-training seminar, with bland entreaties to grasp one's future, and worst-case examples of lonely people who live only for tomorrow. One might respond that at least tomorrow is demonstrably the future, whereas Gabrielle leans heaviest on either the past - those burnt-umber, Stax-y horns on "Give Me A Little More Time" - or the present, as when she essays a close facsimile of the soft and swingy TLC sound on tracks such as "Baby I've Changed" and "If I Could".

There is still abundant talent bubbling underneath the surface of this album, but it needs to be released from the constraints of tired soul archetypes.

"It's nothing at all/ We're having a ball," claim Welsh indie rockers 60ft Dolls on "No Loafers", the opening track of their debut album. They're right on both counts: their Who/Jam-flavoured rock - basic meat-and-spuds raunch, with added punk strop - adds up to a fairly inconsequential hill of beans, but at least it sounds like they're enjoying themselves piling it up. Catchy and rowdy, tracks like "Happy Shopper" are brimful of enthusiasm, but in this case it sounds too much like they mean it, maaan. They seem a little too content with their cosy niche alongside Ash in the Britpop marketplace, a little too reluctant to push the envelope for fear of tearing it apart.

This is most noticeable in their songwriting, which exhibits the kind of slick facility that makes the songs sound as if they wrote themselves - good in that they're readily memorable, but less good in that they often sound formulaic and lifeless, for all the evident spunk and enthusiasm with which they're rendered. And behind the bluster lies simple attitude confusion. Why, for instance, would anyone want to be talking to someone (as they request in "Talk To Me") who admits in the same song that "the only thing I care about is me"?

The Americans are clearly in worse shape than we thought if they need Bo Diddley to front their anti-drug programme, as he does here on the rap "Kids Don't Do It". Apart from anything else, the notion that today's kids are going to be swayed by an old R&B icon is quite laughable - almost as much as the rap itself. It includes two of the most hilarious lines in all rock music, the alarmingly straight-faced "Don't be takin' your mom and daddy's gun to school" (pretty rich coming from a self-professed gun-slinger), and "Listen to Bo Didd-e-ley! Stay in school and get your PhD!". Good advice, but look who's offering it.

Bo's first album for Mike Vernon's new Code Blue label follows the familiar blues comeback pattern, with heavy friends (Keef & Ron, Jimmie Vaughan and Richie Sambora alongside such blues heavies as Johnnie Johnson, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Muddy's harp-player Jerry Portnoy, and Bo's old gob-iron sidekick Billy Boy Arnold) and material which sticks mainly to tried and trusted templates of former glories. This means Texan blues-boogies such as "He's Got a Key", typical Diddley brags such as "Hey Baby", and, for the title-track, a chugging update of "I'm a Man". The opener, "Bo Diddley Is Crazy", is fun, a rockabilly runaway train with Keef on guitar and Johnny "Guitar" Watson attesting to Bo's mental instability. And great lyrics - it's a terrible shame The Ramones didn't stick around long enough to sing the line "I'm sick! Sick! A lunatic!"

The one sizeable blot on Bo's copybook comes in the form of a reggae number, "Coatimundi", which should be taken out and have Bo's .38 put to its furry little head. Soft and inconsequential, it goes against the grain of everything Diddley stands, sits, and wobbles his legs for. If he must do reggae, let it be mad, bad, Lee Perry-spirited bonkers reggae, or none at all.

ANDY GILL

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