"ARE YOU afraid of the boogie monster?" enquires a croaky-voiced inquisitor on a 2Future4U track called, with admirable directness, "The Boogie Monster". The answer, of course, is no: this particular boogie monster is just about the most popular guy around at the moment - just how popular is illustrated by "Business as Usual", an answering-machine collage of artists, celebs, and celebs' representatives ("hello... I'm calling on behalf of Mick Jagger...") desperate to get Armand Van Helden to do a remix. At a cool $60,000 (pounds 38,000) a pop, which you'll agree isn't that bad a daily rate - not in the Bill Gates league, maybe, but at least Armand gets to wear cooler specs while he works.
One of the answering-machine messages appears to be from his landlord, wearily conveying a neighbour's complaint about the ultra-loud music emanating from Armand's apartment at 4.30am. "Sidney from downstairs said it was more... orgasmic than music, to his ear," says the landlord, puzzled. "Is there a reasonable explanation?" Van Helden's explanation eventually appears towards the album's end, with the porno-salsa-disco groove "Entra Mi Casa", on which the vocalist Mita's come-on is explicit enough to ensure the most minimal of airplay.
It's also, as it happens, just about the most involved bout of lyricism on the album, apart perhaps from Tekitha Wu-Tang's hackneyed eco-concerns on "Mother Earth". Usually, Van Helden's vocal collaborators (who include his mom, on a "Summertime" that owes next to nothing to Gershwin) are required to do little more than furnish him with a phrase, or even just a word - "higher!" - and off Armand goes, twisting and braiding it into the flow of a track along with those trademark thumping beats.
It sounds simple enough, but Van Helden also possesses the instinctive ability to know which elements of a host track can be bolted on to his beats. His facility with these sound fragments is awesome: it's unlikely, for instance, that you'll ever hear funkier sawing than that wielded by Armand on "Necessary Evil"; and when his talents are matched with the virtuoso turntable scratching of Company Flow's Mr Len on "Rock The Spot", the results are dizzying. Monstrous, even.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
What Are You Going to Do with Your Life?
WITHOUT THE bolstering Britpop effect that helped give some context to their 1997 comeback album Evergreen, Echo & The Bunnymen just sound rather pallid and ineffectual here.
Compared with the visceral psychedelic thrill of earlier cuts like "Villiers Terrace", What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? has, as its title suggests, all the appeal of a discussion with a career adviser.
Like an itch that they can't resist scratching, song after song gnaws away at weary conclusions and hopeful new beginnings, and while Ian McCulloch can still be incisive lyrically - as on the title-track's "If I could see what you can see/ The sun still shining out of me/ I'd be the boy I used to be" - the settings seem more ponderous and forgettable than before, even with the Fun Lovin' Criminals sitting in on a couple of tracks.
It doesn't really help matters that as they get more mature, the band appear to be indulging their interest in Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb rather more openly, despite lacking either songwriter's way with a winning melody. Good practice for the beckoning cabaret circuit, though.
Open All Night
AS FAR as reputations go, you'd think Marc Almond would have more justification than most in growing old disgracefully. He certainly has no business making an album as alluring as Open All Night at his age, surely? But it's true: while his New Romantic contemporaries busy themselves with a soul-destroying nostalgia package tour, Almond has come up with probably the best work of his solo career.
Certainly, his current collaboration with Neal X, Glen Scott and John Green is shaping up as fruitfully as any other in his past, and in the case of "Sleepwalker" and the single "Tragedy", at least, has furnished another couple of classics to add to his distinctive portfolio of torch songs.
As ever, Almond's focus throughout is the boudoir, to which he brings an element of louche, stalker-ish obsession on tracks like "Bedroom Shrine" and "Black Kiss".
Elsewhere, "Night & Dark" finds Marc still strolling the streets of Paris - in spirit, at least - with a swaying derive of violin and accordion accompanying him as he turns up his collar and sets his face to the lonely wind.
The Middle of Nowhere
THE HARTNOLL brothers' fifth album follows a familiar course, with carefully- layered synth parts sequenced into choppy, syncopated grooves with titles like "Way Out", "Spare Parts Express" and "Know Where To Run". Though entertaining at half the length, their ideas are habitually overplayed, however; most of the eight tracks last nearer 10 minutes than five, each piece gradually filling up with so many counter-melodic riffs that it eventually becomes a fairly undifferentiated midi soup.
Despite their best intentions, too, the duo's favoured electronic sounds convey only a limited range of connotations, approximating those of a Fifties sci-fi future - perfect for abandoned space-ships such as Event Horizon, but not really built for human bodies. The rhythms interlock efficiently enough, but often unnecessarily so - there's no real grasp of the subtle alterations of time and emphasis that might give their beats a more persuasive, funky shape: ironically, for a group with such a sci- fi sensibility, there's little sense of space in Orbital's music.
The result, more often than not, is more like a laborious patter than an invitation to the dance.
ON HIS two previous solo albums, and before that through his time with The Replacements, Paul Westerberg built an imposing reputation as a songwriter unusually sensitive to the sombre side of situations, but still favouring a bout of raunch-rock as the most reliable palliative. On Suicaine Gratification, that balance is all but lost, as Westerberg broods more darkly than before on his own situation, while neglecting to offer much by way of cheery musical compensation.
Even a love lament such as "Best Thing That Never Happened" can be read as another of his self-deprecating career commentaries, while other tracks deal in grimly poetic fashion with such downbeat subjects as suicide and the effect of separation on a child. The prevailing mood taints the whole album: after such a litany of tribulations, the relatively chipper "Whatever Makes You Happy" just seems like a hollow offer.
Suicaine Gratification is, I suppose, an impressive feat of sustained melancholy, but not one that demands to be heard too often. As Westerberg advises in "It's A Wonderful Lie", a typically wistful midlife reflection, "Don't pin your hopes on misanthropes like me".