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Pop: The Big Noise: Texas: The Hush Mercury

WITHOUT GOING too far out on a critical limb, it's safe to say that this is the album that will win all the awards this year. Painstakingly designed and faultlessly performed, it fulfils all the criteria to attract what music-industry insiders refer to as the five-albums-a-year punters - those consumers who aren't addicted to music like the rest of us, but limit themselves to just a few high-profile purchases each season. It's those punters who keep The Corrs high in the charts week after week, and it's their attentions that an artist has to attract to achieve crossover success - all the more so during such lean times for the industry as these.

On that score, Mercury employees' salaries should be safe for the next year or two, because The Hush is the kind of album which, skilfully worked, should provide a constant stream of hits (I stopped counting after eight). Sharleen Spiteri continues to evolve as a vocalist - her layered harmonies shame the collective efforts of most girl groups - but what is really impressive about the LP is the way producer/co-writer Johnny McElhone has managed to blend the various influences behind each song into one seamless alloy - so that, for instance, "Day After Day" sounds like Diana Ross and the Hi Records rhythm section meeting round at Massive Attack's place to do a Boz Scaggs number, and "Saint" resembles nothing so much as Chrissie Hynde covering a Van Morrison song.

The band themselves like to play the spot-the-influence game, describing the single "In Our Lifetime" as "Siouxsie's `Hong Kong Garden' remixed by Prince", but their penchant for borrowing riffs, fills and feels from parent sources is more subtly indulged than ever before, so that the end result is a far more attractive beast than their thumbnail description suggests. Only the faux-Supremes sheen of "When We Are Together" - a too- logical development from their earlier "Black Eyed Boy" - could really be dismissed as a single-source stylistic cop, while tracks as diverse as "Summer Son" (pounding funk motorik with bells Spectorising majestically away) and "Move In" (slinky, intimate R&B) break effortlessly free of such generic pigeonholes. It's almost as if they've set out to make a kind of all-purpose Millennial music, a post-modern pop that sums up the entire history of this most varied of 20th-century media. The miracle is that they've just about pulled it off.