Pop: ...And Other Album Releases

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CATATONIA

Equally Cursed and Blessed

Blanco Y Negro

CERYS MATTHEWS has the kind of voice you either love or hate, and for me her Olive Oyl-with-attitude whine is, I admit, the closest thing to nails scraping down a blackboard. Perhaps that's what they mean by Equally Cursed and Blessed: they run the risk of her idiosyncratic voice repulsing potential listeners, but without it, well, they're pretty much indistinguishable from the multitude of lower-division indie Brit-poppers. It's touch and go whether last season's promotion run can be sustained another year, for this is a very dull record, its bland melange of organ, guitar and electric piano straining to cover all available bases, but with little distinction. The stridency of the Eartha Kitt of the Valleys is softened by the inclusion of strings on some tracks, but there's little improvement in the Catatonia compositional style: the album is so freighted with terrible puns, it's sometimes hard to tell if these are songs at all. "Make hay not war"; "custard's last stand"; "London never sleeps, it just sucks"; "Her treasured chest was sunken". It's like hearing tracks entirely composed of NME headlines.

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS

Echo

Warner Bros

"IT'S THE same as the same sad echo as before," sings Tom Petty on the title-track of this latest collection, his first since the She's The One soundtrack from 1996. He's not wrong, either: there's something warm and comforting about Petty's wry melancholy, one of rock's most dependable attitudes. The album marks a return to his forte of songs which, like the album logo, look both ways at once. Whether he's tempering a tale of struggle with a laconic aside like "She went down swingin' - like Glenn Miller", or balancing the benefits of extroversion and isolation in "Room At The Top", he has the uncanny ability to sketch both sides of a story, or sentiment, with enviable equanimity. He's particularly adept at conveying the cyclical nature of emotions, as in both "Echo"and the admirably upbeat depression song "Won't Last Long". The Heartbreakers are as reliably modest as ever, save for the occasional Mike Campbell solo like the dervish guitar fill in "Room At The Top". All in all, Petty's best since he joined Warners.

ULTRASOUND

Everything Picture

Nude

SOMETIMES, SIZE isn't everything, particularly when it takes a band 88 minutes to traverse a mere 11 songs. Last year's next big thing, Ultrasound have finally got around to releasing their debut album at least six months too late, and as if to compensate for having gone well beyond their sell- by date, they've made possibly this year's most irritating package - from the ugly sleeve that confounds one's attempts to extricate the two CDs, to Tiny Wood's grandiose whine, the title track's laughably "climactic" 20-minute noise-scape, lyrics which depict rock'n'roll in terms of "naked pagan glory", and pervasive mellotronic strings which summon hideous ghosts of early King Crimson and ELP (not heretofore regarded as particularly naked, pagan or glorious). For all their vaunting ambition and glam aspirations - trying to grasp the fluttering coat-tails of Suede and Pulp, perhaps? - Ultrasound's music is little more than pomp-rock stodge with eyeliner, and as one horribly over-egged pudding of a song follows another, one can't help but fret over the future of British pop. Is this all there is?

ADD N TO (X)

Avant Hard

Mute

ADD N TO (X), it's claimed, take their name from a computer command that "creates an unknown third electronic force", whatever that means. Certainly, this second album shows them to be excessively smitten by the quasi-futurist allure of analogue synthesisers, which they wield with scant regard for either fun or fashion. It's a noisy job, but someone's got to do it. They're not, however, as pointlessly purist as some of their peers: rather than rely solely on electronically generated rhythms, breakbeats abound beneath juddering electric motors such as "FYUZ" and the single "Metal Fingers In My Body". They're not averse to the odd sample staining their shapely sine-waves either, most intriguingly on "Ann's Eveready Equestrian". Elsewhere, the cacophonous "Revenge of the Black Regent" grows from glacial tones into a stately military tattoo, while "Buckminster Fuller" sounds like an explosion in a siren factory. The fey female vocals soften their impact, in kitsch Stereolab style, but there seems little place for fleshly folk. The machines appear to be enjoying themselves, though.

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