Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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THE BETA BAND The Beta Band Regal

IF, BY some quirk of destiny, the babies born at the Woodstock Festival had grown up and formed a band together, this is what it would sound like - blithe, idiosyncratically beautiful, and quite, quite bonkers.

Like Beck, The Beta Band acknowledge few boundaries, temporal or musical, in their songs, operating with the same kind of timeless hippie spirit and eclecticism, and recognising similar connections between supposedly diverse subcultural styles. The results on this debut album proper, however, make Beck's equivalent sonic collages sound like models of rationality.

"The Beta Band Rap" stakes out their territory right from the start, opening like a demented kids' TV theme, complete with siren whistles and light-hearted chant vocals, before slipping into a downbeat, shuffling rap groove, then a cod-rockabilly section, and so on. It's like The Barron Knights on powerful hallucinogenic drugs, dashing hither, thither and yon across the spectrum of musical styles.

Frequently, they stroll nonchalantly off up blind alleys before turning back and trying another route; sometimes, they try several routes at once. When it works, the various elements combine synergistically into the kind of thing you won't hear anywhere else, except maybe on an Olivia Tremor Control album. "It's Not Too Beautiful", for instance, supplants a gently plodding electric piano groove with a storm-tossed orchestral loop and found-sound montage: the resulting song of gentle resistance has a haunting quality that's difficult to dislodge for days.

Sometimes, though, they throw so much into a track that you need a map to find your way through it. On "Round The Bend", they sound like a gang of children locked in a toy shop - there's an innocent, ingenuous delight in the sheer wonder of sound, of discovering how certain noises combine, and you suspect they might profit from the attentions of an outside producer, a grown-up who could bring a little order to their playpen of music. The quirkiness extends to their lyrics, which can be pointlessly parochial, with stream-of-consciousness raps, in-jokes and rambling dream narratives. But for all their wayward whimsicality, there's an energy and integrity at the heart here that is utterly winning, a fascination with music that overrides the commercial and fashion considerations dominating so many of their contemporaries' attitudes.

JAMIROQUAI

Synkronized Sony Soho Square

SLEEK AND streamlined - though oddly soulless for a soul album - Synkronized is a real curate's egg, good in parts but rather lacking distinction as a whole. Most tracks feature attractive elements - the electronic popping bass of "Canned Heat", the Toussaint-flavoured horn arrangement of "Black Capricorn Day", the hi-hat trill of "Destitute Illusions" - but few cohere into anything more substantial than routine jazz-funk workouts. At their best, tracks such as "Supersonic" and "Planet Home" are slick, propulsive grooves that hang on a single riff in the manner of James Brown, though somewhat lighter - "Planet Home" in particular has an engagingly airy, hovering quality. But there's an annoyingly bumptious, self-regarding manner to some of the arrangements, which linger a little too admiringly over their own supposed cleverness. The biggest drawback, though, is that the absence of musical interest means you are driven to listen to what Jay Kay is singing - cruel and unusual punishment indeed.

MARIANNE FAITHFULL

Vagabond Ways Virgin

MARIANNE FAITHFULL'S work here remains tied not to the past, but to the yawning distance between the past and the present. It's there in the title-track, a renegade survivor's song in which she offers an unashamed mea culpa for a life lived to the full; it's there in "For Wanting You", a tragic diva's aria written for her by Elton John and Bernie Taupin; and it's there in spades in "File It Under Fun From the Past", on which organ and guitar underscore the misty mood of disillusion, as a ship regrets passing another in the night years before. "I could have been a contender for your love," she muses, before reminding the man that he has lost at least as much as she. This refusal to be bowed by circumstance is the album's most striking characteristic, with a version of Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song" celebrating endurance. Vagabond Ways constitutes a welcome return to the tough-yet-subtle shadings of her earlier work, after the lacklustre collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti on 1995's A Secret Life.

GOOFY

I Don't Give a Damn Greensleeves

THE DANCEHALL humorist Goofy comes from the same Main Street stable that brought the world Beenie Man and Red Rat, which means that I Don't Give a Damn is packed with Danny Brownie's taut, interior-sprung grooves, over which Goofy - real name Chad Simpson - offers his own, ah, forthright perspective on the problems of the age, punctuating proceedings occasionally with a few devastatingly incomprehensible patois pastiches. Ever the comedian, Simpson's stage name is borrowed from the cartoon character, whose dopey, aw-shucks inflection he mimics on "Goofy Laugh", an adaptation of Sister Sledge's "Frankie". Elsewhere, the familiar dancehall themes are covered, but the obvious standouts here are Goofy's breakthrough hit "Fudgie", with its wonkily infectious clown-horn groove, and the playground favourite "Somebody Just Poop", an extended fart gag (complete with sound effects). It's innocent, if sometimes bawdy, fun, though at 25 tracks, I'm not sure there's much more we need to hear from Goofy.

SCOTT 4

Works Project LP Folk Archive/V2

THERE'S A schizoid confusion at the heart of Scott 4's follow-up to last year's Recorded In State LP which fatally undermines its impact, as the trio try to effect a bridge between conflicting musical attitudes. On the one hand, there is a series of Momus-style wry social commentaries done in a Eighties synth-pop manner, such as "We're Not Robots". On the other, there's a tranche of dolorous Neil Young-flavoured introspective folk-rock musings, such as "Hallo Doctor" and the unbearably maudlin "May Last". It's not the first time a group has attempted to reconcile satire and sincerity, though crucially, Scott 4 appear to lack the joie de vivre that enables the underrated Ween to crack that contradiction. Here, the listener is confused as to how they're meant to respond, left wondering whether a particular song is satirical or seriously romantic. The two approaches are mutually undermining; the result is that you quickly cease to care, and after that, the half-hearted attempts to combine the disparate styles appear like dilettante conceits.

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