Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
RANDY NEWMAN Bad Love Dreamworks

BAD LOVE is the work of a master at the peak of his powers, aided and abetted by the most simpatico of studio cohorts. For all his achievements, Randy Newman has rarely written songs quite as satirically sharp as these; and, skilled as they are in the nuances of acoustic performance, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake are the perfect producers to realise Newman's fondness for antique American musical forms.

The result - Newman's first non-theatrical project since 1988's Land Of Dreams - is a beautiful, virtually flawless recording, clearly the result of a rare confluence of inspiration and implementation. These vignettes and character studies tingle with life, animated by the subtle moods and teeming detail of arrangements which range from country and metal pastiches to Les Baxter-style lounge music and even a pompous D'Oyle Carte declamation for a splendid lampoon of imperialism, "The Great Nations of Europe". Several tracks take the form of jazz-raps, on which the louche swagger of saxophone and the slither of brush on snare are as articulate as Newman's lyrics.

As ever, Newman courts controversy by trying on roles deemed beyond the pale. Who else would play the rich older man in "Shame", pleading with a lost trophy girlfriend - "You know, I have a Lexus now" - or bait lefties as brazenly as he does in "The World Isn't Fair", a Stephen Foster-style critique of Marxism with a sting in its tail? And who else would cut as close to the knuckle as "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)", wherein an old rock trouper contemplates the vacuity of his existence? "Each record that I'm making is like a record that I've made," muses the has-been. "Just not as good." That doesn't apply to Newman himself, who has located even deeper reserves of bitterness than usual for songs such as "Better Off Dead" and "The One You Love", a pair of sour reflections on the torture of relationships. His double-edged attitude towards his native land is indicated by the distance between the nationalism of "Going Home" and the sad admission of "My Country", a song about the effect of television on American families. "Feelings might go unexpressed," he muses. "I think that's probably for the best." Thankfully, on Bad Love he doesn't practice what he preaches.

GZA/GENIUS

Beneath the Surface MCA

FEW RAP records have been as genuinely eagerly awaited as this, the follow-up to Genius's 1995 debut Liquid Swords, the finest of the many Wu-Tang offshoots, and one of the few contenders for hip-hop album of the decade. Understandably, Beneath the Surface struggles to live up to those expectations, not least because the kung-fu dialogue samples of its predecessor have been replaced with routine satiric skits, just like every other rap album (but not actually funny). With Arabian Knight and Mathematics taking most of the production duties, however, the trademark Wu-Tang portents dominate the album, while Genius's thick, clotted vocals tumble with their usual enigmatic logic, sounding less like hip-hop than a form of religious possession. Between the gripping social-realist rhetoric ("Now the streets be more safe than schools") and the more fanciful stream- of-consciousness imagery, Genius creates the verbal equivalent of a Hieronymous Bosch canvas, a paranoid depiction of the living hell to which his people have been condemned.

KRISTIN HERSH

Sky Motel 4AD

SKY MOTEL finds Kristin Hersh electrified once more, after a prolonged acoustic hiatus, during which she also recovered from the psychological ailments that had afflicted her. Not that either of these changes makes that much difference: she might have returned to a band sound, but save for a few drum tracks here and there, she's elected to play all the instruments, which makes it just as much a solo venture as, say, 1995's Hips and Makers. And if her recuperation has brought her any comfort or clarity, it's not too discernible in her songs. They remain Post-it notes to herself, free- associative diary entries about her writer's block, her children, her creepy neighbours, her restlessness etc, picked out in apparently random images - a coyote's wail, an album lying on a car seat, Gatorade and pistachios on a bed... It might be a compelling portrait of fear and desire had she not so determinedly avoided more welcoming melodies - only "A Cleaner Light" comes close to catchy - with which to reward her listeners.

COMPANY FLOW

Little Johnny From The Hospital Rawkus

THE AVERAGE wannabe gangsta stumbling over the latest Company Flow release in the hip-hop racks is in for a bit of a shock - this is a rap album so weird and out-there that it doesn't even have any vocals. Subtitled "Breaks and Instrumentals Vol 1", it's Co Flow duo El-P and Mr Len's attempt to offset the shortfall in break-beat instrumentals for rappers to freestyle over. Rap music without the raps is a development that might profitably be pursued by more of their colleagues - though few would come up with anything as interesting as these dense, absorbing sound collages. Liberated from narrative duties, the pieces take on strange new shapes, with cool, ambling horn figures adrift in swirling synth noises ("Friend vs Friend"), and electric piano and sitar-guitar stalking each other through a trip-hop shuffle ("World of Garbage"). The result owes less to hip-hop than to European avant-rock, particularly Can on a track such as "Bee Aware", which sounds like the musical equivalent of an elephants' graveyard, the place where sounds go to die.

SHACK

HMS Fable London

IF THE Head brothers, singer/songwriter Michael and guitarist John, have a family motto, it surely reads "Wrong place, wrong time". For nearly 20 years, they've pursued a personal grail of psychedelic guitar pop through various incarnations - the Pale Fountains, Shack, the Strands, and now Shack again - only to stumble over misfortune at crucial moments, as A&R men abandoned them, record companies collapsed, and master tapes were lost in a studio fire. This current effort is as good as they've been, but again, it's come at just the wrong time, as the dying embers of Britpop render retro-ism inescapably retro. Two years ago, its antique pop flavours might have caught the zeitgeist, but its mix of Barrett-era Pink Floyd, faux-Bacharach sophistication, Britpop singalong and wannabe-euphoric folk-rock sounds secondhand. It's not that the Heads lack talent or application, as the psychedelic shanty "Captain's Table" shows; it's just that emulating the elegant Elektra folk-rock of Love and Tim Buckley can only lead to unflattering comparisons.

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