Pop Albums: 'There is no distance, irony or even anger in Smith's responses here, and the overly indulgent lament for Kurt Cobain - "About a Boy" - does little to relieve matters'

Patti Smith

Gone Again

Arista 74321 38474

This first release since 1988's comeback album Dream of Life, this is effectively an extended bout of mourning for Smith's husband, the former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. Opening with the title-track, a real Viking send-off rooted in the Group's classic drone-guitar clangour, the album moves through a variety of responses, with Smith eventually reaching some sort of accommodation in the stoic solipsism of "Wing", with the realisation that "I was free/ I needed nobody/ It was beautiful". By the concluding "Farewell Reel", even the most sympathetic listener will probably have had enough.

Unlike Lou Reed's musings upon death in Magic and Loss, there is no distance, irony or even anger in Smith's responses here, and the additional, overly indulgent lament for Kurt Cobain, "About a Boy", does little to relieve matters. One is left feeling a little too intrusive into someone else's grief, as if having wandered by mistake into the wrong funeral. Smith acknowledges the danger of her doomy absorption in a suitably apocalyptic cover of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger", pointedly emphasising the line "If you cannot bring good news, then don't bring any". Not that it's stopped her, of course.

There is no shortage of stylistic variety here, though. "Dead to the World" is a sort of spooked hoe-down, "Fireflies" is a lilting lullaby and "Ravens" possesses the kind of hillbilly menace that might make it a candidate for the next Nick Cave covers album. In place of the melodramatic sonic architects who helmed her earlier records - John Cale, Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Iovine - Gone Again is produced by long-serving guitarist Lenny Kaye with Malcolm Burn, who helps bring a more intimate presence and depth to the arrangements, most successfully on "Beneath the Southern Cross", an ode to non-being (!) in which Tom Verlaine's almost subliminal lead guitar notes can just be discerned, delicately rippling the meniscus of Kaye's hypnotic rhythm guitar. It's a beautifully understated piece. The most genuinely affecting song here, however, has to be "My Madrigal", a simple and uncluttered statement of marital devotion whose chorus - "Till death do us part" - is lent extra poignancy by her own bereavement.

Freakpower

More of Everything...

for Everybody

Fourth & Broadway BRCD 619

An enormous, quantum-leap improvement on 1995's debut, Drive-Thru Booty, this latest from Norman Cook and Ashley Slater's Freakpower almost single- handedly resuscitates the notion of Brit-funk following the slough that disaffected funk purists will henceforth refer to as "the Jamiroquai years". With nary a floppy fur hat or Stevie Wonder lick in sight, More Of Everything...For Everybody strikes out from its Seventies roots to embrace today's rhythms and technology in the most infectious funk blend of the year so far.

The start isn't all that promising - a standard fade-in intro vamp with bleepy dub synth effects and the phrase "Take a little trip through your mind" repeated over and over, like every half-wit rap album, before the actual song ambles along a couple of minutes into the track. From there on, it's virtually straight aces: stalking techno-funk in "New Direction", Sly Stone-inflected struts in "Let It Go", rolling Southern funk in "KK Nuns", and anthemic grooves in "One Nation One Ride", all tracing a dynamic parabola from measured start to mental conclusion.

With occasional hints of Latin rhythms here and there, I'm reminded of what LA street-funkers War might have sounded like with access to modern sequencer and synth technology.

The philosophical demands of the genre are well met in "Giving Up Government Drugs", a singalong as friendly and floppy as its advice - basically, advocating the withdrawal of one's patronage from the excise system by kicking nicotine - is simple and effective. As for the romantic demands, the slinky electric piano funk of "Husband" comes complete with Slater's whispered intimacies and a saucy promise - "I'll kiss you where your husband won't" - which suggests he's thinking of somewhere quite disgusting. Rotherham, maybe.

Fun Lovin' Criminals

Come Find Yourself

Chrysalis 7243-8-35703-2 4

Beastie yobbos from NYC, these Fun Lovin' Criminals make a fine old funky jazz-rap mess on this debut album, blending ebullient good humour with a white gangsta tradition that at one point finds them serenading the imprisoned "dapper don" with the chorus "La-di, da-di, free John Gotti". Despite such questionable allegiances, this is one of the most infectious rap albums of the year, boasting a range of musical influences way beyond the narrow confines of tired old G-funk, and re-introducing rap to its roots in the blues.

"The Fun Lovin' Criminal" opens proceedings with a typically self-aggrandising statement of intent - "I'm like John Steed/ I steal your girly, I steal your weed" - built on the kind of funky acoustic guitar groove Beck might favour, studded with oddball horns. Elsewhere, a speeded-up Lynyrd Skynyrd vocal sample and "Smoke on the Water" power-chords carry "Bombin' The L", and blues harmonica and slide-guitar bowl "Bear Hug" along irresistibly. Pulp Fiction's Honey Bunny makes her presence felt on "Scooby Snacks", on which the trio ponder the effects of "runnin' around robbin' banks all whacked up on Scooby snacks"; and somewhere along the way, the Criminals offer up a dead straight cover of "We Have All the Time in the World", just for variety's sake.

The only time they come close to serious is on "I Can't Get With That", a caustic look at political divide-and-conquer strategies which alleges "They try to move us, to use us/ Like Judas did Jesus, to please us/ Diverting the issues to misuse". That's a momentary aberration, however - for the rest of its length, Come Find Yourself comes down heavily on the side of fun and mischief, as befits a bunch of lads "up to no good, with no place to go but down". Whether they have another album in them remains to be seen, but just for the moment, only the terminally uptight could fail to find something of themselves in the Fun Lovin' Criminals.

Booth and the Bad Angel

Booth and the Bad Angel

Fontana 526 852-2

That's Tim Booth, singer with stadium new-wavers James, and Angelo Badalamenti, composer of Twin Peaks, with assistance from former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. An intriguing mix, on paper at least, and substantially more interesting, as it happens, than the last couple of James albums. The single "I Believe" is indicative of the territory covered: the same vaunting, anthemic approach familiar from Booth's work with James, but with Badalamenti's arrangement bringing a less cajoling attitude to the music. "Why be a song when you can be a symphony?" asks Booth, not impertinently.

If there is an overall theme to the album, it's to do with Booth's own version of the sexual sacrament as proselytised by guilty sinners from Al Green to Prince, with plenty of sexual and religious metaphors illustrating the eternal pull between body and soul, and love returned to an ecstatic presence. This finds its most dynamic musical form in the qawwali-style vocals of Chloe Goodchild on "Dance of the Bad Angels". Butler is for the most part a less commanding presence than we've come to expect, scrawling trails of distortion through "Life Gets Better" and "Heart", and restricting himself elsewhere to rather diffident embellishment. Despite Booth's penchant for appalling puns - as in "How do we know your smile's/ From the dolphin, not the crocodile/ The porpoise of this sickness is to get better" - it's a much more coherent collaboration than might be expected from such disparate talents.

808 State

Don Solaris

ZTT 0630-14356-2

Their first album in over three years finds 808 State's methods unchanged and - an introductory minute of musique concrete aside - their music following much the same furrow as before.

It's better than the tired and dreary Gorgeous, for all that, with subsequent techno developments added to their armoury - items such as a drum 'n' bass beat here, a squawky Chemical Brothers-style bassline there.

The listener still can't help but feel a sense of overcrowding about some tracks, though; "Joyrider" uses no fewer than five different bass sources, and stirs up a great big syncopated MIDI soup of percussion, but the sax figure which tops it all off - the musical focus of the piece - is too mundane to sustain interest.

The same sense of misdirected energy applies to "Lopez", on which the sterling work of guest vocalist James Dean Bradfield (of the Manic Street Preachers) is spoilt by an obtrusive snare drum trying to impose a sense of funk where it isn't necessary. However, 808 State do manage some delightful strategies elsewhere, as when the breathy soprano sax and belching bass clarinet of "Black Dartangnon" loom out of the enveloping keyboards like the mythic inhabitant of some fantastic bestiary. For this moment, the machines are cowed by this ghostly presence.

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