Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture

No Exit


A FEW years ago, when the ravages of age had thrown Debbie Harry's chill beauty into sudden recession, the return of as a pop force seemed the least likely of comebacks. For while the sagging visages of such grizzled old campaigners as Page & Plant seemed somehow appropriate, a kind of karmic payback for their well-documented years of dissolute indulgence, Debbie's untouchable perfection was central to her group's appeal. But as her poorly-charted solo career and subsequent dead-end role fronting the Jazz Passengers demonstrated, it was not the sole deciding factor. The music still mattered, more than most had suspected.

It's fortunate, then, that keyboard player Jimmy Destri had squirreled away such an obvious hit as "Maria" during his years away from the band. Indeed, that No Exit is as powerful a comeback effort as it is - especially when compared to the pathetic revival tour of near-contemporaries Culture Club and The Human League - is as much due to Destri's ear for a surefire pop classic as it is to Debbie's bewitching revivification. Even at a time when No 1 hits are as common and forgettable as ants, "Maria" already sounds like you've known it for ever.

The rest of the album, while not quite as strong, packs several decent punches. "Forgive And Forget" aims for the sleek weightlessness of "Heart Of Glass", but lands somewhere closer to the trance-pop of Madonna's last album, which may be no bad thing. "Night Wind Sent", too, is a graceful expression of devotion, while Destri's "Nothing Is Real But The Girl" displays a similar well-chorded craft to "Maria". Away from their forte, they're capable enough as they try on country music ("The Dream's Lost On Me"), dub reggae ("Divine"), psychedelic drone chant ("Dig Up The Conjo"), cool pop-jazz ("Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room") and a kind of Bach-hop classical-metal rap duet with Coolio ("No Exit"), though their versatility is best expended on the Greenwich/Barry street opera "Out In The Streets", where Debs is multi-tracked as the girl group to end all girl groups.


I'm So Confused


OF COURSE Jonathan Richman is so confused: after a lifetime spent trying to promote the idealism of adolescence in the face of overwhelming adult turmoil, who wouldn't be? This is Richman's great gift, of course, one which the producers of There's Something About Mary recognised when they commissioned him to serve as the film's Greek chorus, articulating the hero's perplexity with an innocent insouciance. It's a position he's rarely performed as well as he does here: when he sings "I Can Hear Her Fighting With Herself", it's probably because he can hear similar battles raging within himself.

The results are not equally successful, however: a humorous, intelligent rumination like "True Love Is Not Nice" can be followed by a couple of clumsy, coy exercises like "Love Me Like I Love" and "Hello From Cupid", where he overplays the lovable naif badly. But it's impossible to dislike someone who dares rhyme "across the pond" with "demi-monde", and in the same song claims of his teenage self, "well, I didn't like this and I didn't like that/I was such a little brat". You too, Jonathan?


Pop-Off Tuesday

Pickled Egg

LIKE THEIR American colleagues Cibo Matto, Pop-Off Tuesday are a Japanese duo who blend distinctive vocal lilts with backings bolted together from an avalanche of sounds and samples. At times, they sound like an avalanche; at others, like metal fatiguing.

Fragments of lounge muzak, slide guitar, industrial noise, muted trumpet and electric violin surface jaggedly within these 12 tracks, looming suddenly in the path of the tune like icebergs. "Mad Tea Party" is typical: the shadowy contours of a plaintive lo-fi song are thrown into sharp relief by stark, loud bursts of samples, setting up a captivating tension. At their best, as on the single "Unworldly", the elements come together with an enticing bleakness reminiscent of Nico's masterpiece The Marble Index; other useful reference-points are Pere Ubu, early Faust, Morcheeba and - thanks to singer Minori's engaging melismatic style - The Cocteau Twins. Their lyrics are almost as opaque as Liz Fraser's, though not without the occasional shaft of clarity. "We all flow and feed on lightning", indeed. Recommended.


Simple Gearle


IT COULD hardly be said that Stacey Earle was riding on the back of big brother Steve's celebrity - if that were the case, she'd surely have done it before she got to be 37, rather than running away from home, getting married and having kids before she was out of her teens, which is what she wound up doing.

The cover of her self-released debut signals her intentions through its deliberate echo of Gillian Welch's Revival, but while there's an engaging simplicity to her gentle country-rock arrangements, she lacks Welch's way with portents and archetypes - and she sounds more like Nanci Griffith, anyway. Like brother Steve, Stacey has, however, lived a little, and it's that life she draws on in her songs. These are plainly wrought tales of small lives and small mercies - of weddings and separations, of dead-end jobs and weekend escapes, of being so lonely you're driven to seek refuge in a supermarket - told in a casual, conversational style which, at its best, resembles "Ode To Billie Joe". A promising first collection, though Stacey needs to develop a more distinctive, individual voice.


Hard Luck Guy


THIS POSTHUMOUS release is aptly titled: an esteemed Southern soul contemporary of such Sixties legends as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Eddie Hinton played on records by Pickett, Aretha, the Staples and Sam & Dave, but failed to make much of a mark with his own releases. Then, just as he was starting to get recognition in the Nineties thanks to albums such as Letters From Mississippi and Very Blue Highway, he passed away in 1995.

Hard luck indeed, considering his talents as guitarist, and especially vocalist: Hinton's voice is about as black as white tubes get, a laryngitic bark akin to Otis's or OV Wright's raw husks. It's best represented here on the tracks recorded in the late-Seventies for Capricorn Records, spruced up since his death with dark, burring horns and sympathetic swamp-funk arrangements by old Muscle Shoals Studio chums such as Spooner Oldham, Clayton Ivey and Johnny Sandlin.

It's mostly Eddie's material, too, and in the case of songs such as "Lovin' Chain" and "I Can't Be Me", top-drawer stuff: rarely has the emotional dislocation of deep soul been expressed as clearly as in the latter.