Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Surrender Freestyle Dust/Virgin

THE CHEMICAL Brothers' third album proper (not counting last year's DJ mix offering Brothers Gonna Work It Out) represents a huge leap forward from its dance-floor-dominated predecessors, not least in the shift from huge, in-your-face breakbeats to subtler, more techno-oriented rhythm tracks. Compared to the pummelling of "Block Rockin' Beats", the album opener, "Music: Response", owes more to Kraftwerk, with a vocoder voice muttering about "music that triggers some kind of response" while electronic bleeps, whirrs and fizzes dance in mid-air. It's a lighter, more limber sound, not as dependent on sheer bulldozer force for its effect, but just as infectious.

The Chemical formula of beats, synth squiggles, vocal soundbites and guest singers still applies to Surrender, but where their attentions were once dominated by the drum tracks, Tom & Ed's focus has shifted more to dense sound montages, using the previous album's "Private Psychedelic Reel" as a jumping-off point for cosmic excursions such as "The Sunshine Underground" and "Surrender" itself. The latter sounds as if Traffic might if they were 30 years younger, while the former's slippery psychedelic fantasia makes even clearer the exploratory space they share with Mercury Rev. The Rev's Jonathan Donahue turns up again on the concluding "Dream On", singing and strumming acoustic guitar while the world spins around him.

Noel Gallagher brings the usual Beatley haze of hippie sunshine to "Let Forever Be". Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval is the guest female vocalist, languishing in the opiated surroundings of "Asleep From Day", while Bernard Sumner appears on "Out of Control", which resembles New Order with a veneer of synth bricolage.

The synthesiser work is probably the album's most impressive aspect, a series of carefully crafted sonic scribbles that defy the staid dictates of keyboard pitch in favour of more abstract designs. It's this preference for seething activity, rather than the usual dance-floor longueurs, that most sets them apart from their supposed peers, bringing a wonky, enthusiastic charm to the album that is hard to resist.

MISSY ELLIOTT

Da Real World Eastwest

MISSY ELLIOTT'S 1997 debut Supa Dupa Fly came like a breath of fresh air to the hip-hop scene: here was someone with her own visual style, and her own fresh sound, as realised in the updated swingbeat grooves which she put together with her co-producer Tim "Timbaland" Mosley. The same elements all operate on Da Real World, but such is the speed of changing musical fashion that, if anything, it seems dated already. Missy rarely strays far from the creaky rap standbys of dreary braggadocio and materialist exhibitionism, while she and her B-girl sisters Da Brat, Queen Pen and Lady Saw appear to be on a mission to have "bitch" replace "the" as the most common word in the English language. There's still some life left in Timbaland's light, infectious grooves, where the high, guitar and bells and the deeper string and baritone sax fragments reach out to each other over the yawning mid-range chasm, but for the most part here, the Shock of the New has been replaced by the Shock of the Deja Vu.

KID ROCK

Devil Without a Cause Atlantic

"I'M JUST a regular failure," brags Detroit's Kid Rock, "I'm not straight out of Compton, I'm straight out of trailer." And if you doubt him, there's a photo of Kid walking through a trailer-park, the contemporary equivalent of The Clash posing against a brick wall. The Kid is effectively Butthead's older brother, fronting a rap-metal outfit with a great sense of style - thin dreads, red lame suit, homburg hat, cigar - and a shoulder-sized chip. Devil Without a Cause is like a hooligan version of Rage Against the Machine, while Kid's Twisted Brown Trucker Band do their best to revive the Southern boogie of Lynyrd Skynyrd. This surly mess of chugging funk- metal and delinquent attitude has taken off in a big way in America, pulling big crowds for shows incorporating strippers, horses, and Kid's dwarf rapper chum Joe C. A track such as "Fist of Rage" encroaches on Rollins Band territory, which takes some bottle, while the catchy "Bawitdaba" is like an even more nightmarish version of styrofoam popsters Cartoons.

NORMA WATERSON

The Very Thought of You Hannibal

THE SONGS on Norma Waterson's follow-up to her 1996 debut come mainly in pairs, most containing a tribute of sorts to some hero, along with a cover of the hero's work. Thus is her late sister Lal's "Reply to Joe Haines" - a furious riposte to the journalist's heartless attack on Freddie Mercury over the latter's Aids affliction - prefigured by a version of Mercury's "Love of My Life" which adapts surprisingly well to Waterson's Northern vowels and wistful Forties delivery; and Richard Thompson's "Josef Locke" accompanied by "Blaze Away" from the tenor's wartime set. Some of the links are lateral: Thompson's "Al Bowlly's in Heaven" uses the crooner's premature death in an air raid to evoke a mood of post-war disillusion, while Nick Drake's "River Man" reminds us of another crooner taken prematurely.

Impressively rendered throughout by a folkie first-team, the album's powerful air of Forties nostalgia goes a long way towards reconnecting folk music with its roots in English popular song.

MINISTRY

Dark Side of the Spoon Warner Bros

THE FOUNDING fathers of American industrial rock, Ministry's Al Jourgenson and Paul Barker, are ultimately responsible for devising the Marilyn Manson/ Nine Inch Nails "life is hell, and here's the sound-track" approach to music. But for a supposedly cutting-edge form, they've progressed barely an inch or two over the course of seven albums: Dark Side of the Spoon is largely indistinguishable from earlier offerings, and while it might seem fresh and innovatory to American ears, to ours it's transparently just old Goth knock-offs.

"Supermanic Soul" is typical: jackboot stomp, crushing guitar riff, and Jourgenson shouting hoarsely over the top about "the smell of death", or some such. "Step" is better, an acidly cynical parody of veteran rockers pleading 12-step absolution, but "Nursing Home", a predatory trudge featuring duelling banjo and power-drill, gives Ministry's game away: they're like naughty boys with the musical equivalent of a chemistry set, making nasty smells at the back of the class.

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