Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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TOWNES VAN ZANDT A Far Cry From Dead Arista Austin

SCRATCH ANY Texan singer, from Joe Ely and Steve Earle to Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, and you'll find a Townes Van Zandt fan. Earle, for one, claimed Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world, bar none, "...and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that", such was his devotion to the man who effectively gave birth to the currently thriving Texan folk tradition.

In truth, they all followed in Van Zandt's footsteps - a full-time task if taken seriously, since he was the archetypal restless troubadour, constantly roaming, guitar to hand, despite the chronic stage fright that made his later concerts rare and precious occasions. Eschewing the blandishments of fame and fortune, he remained a cult figure throughout his career, but when he died of liver failure brought on by a lifetime's prodigious consumption of cheap vodka, he left a hole that none could adequately fill. He passed away on New Year's Day 1997, 42 years to the day that Hank Williams died.

A short while before his death, Van Zandt gave his wife Jeanene a DAT of solo recordings he'd made, advising "Hang on to these babe, I think there's some good stuff on here". He wasn't wrong: posthumously set to sympathetic arrangements by producer Eric Paul, the songs on A Far Cry From Dead effectively constitute a Greatest Hits compilation, with retrospective intimations of mortality casting new shadows over songs such as "Tower Song" and "Waitin' Round To Die", both originally recorded in 1968, and lending a sort of Wild Bunch epigone sensibility to his most famous song "Pancho and Lefty".

Van Zandt had a briskly poetic appreciation of the country tradition of the romantic loser, prefiguring such as Clint Black with lines like "Livin's mostly wastin' time/ I waste my share of mine", and he had the rare storyteller's ability to encapsulate entire lives in a single verse - as in "Dollar Bill Blues" from 1971, where he sings "Mother was a golden girl/ Slit her throat just to get her pearls/ Cast myself into a world/ Before a bunch of swine". As illness overtook him, however, the portents and forebodings of those early songs took on a much starker cast, which is perhaps why he recorded them again.

None, though, is quite as powerfully affecting as his last song, the previously unrecorded "Sanitarium Blues", an unflinching account of institutionalised treatment for "could be TB or maybe a tumor", which contains the most devastating verse of his entire oeuvre: "Then upon some sunlit day/ They figure there's no need for you to stay/ They're pretty sure you can't be cured/ So they send you on your merry way."

PUBLIC ENEMY

There's a Poison Goin' On PIAS Recordings

INITIALLY AVAILABLE only on the Internet, Public Enemy's latest album follows the familiar course of righteous paranoiac rants set to abstract scratch-collages. "It's that same old shit from that same old gang," as Chuck D lambasts some Aunt Sally target on the money-as-root-of-all-evil track "LSD", without a trace of irony. Boy, does he go on, mostly about stuff UK audiences couldn't care less about, like the supposed blacklisting of his band by US radio bosses - as if that was why PE records don't sell the way they used to, and not their drearily confrontational, repetitive nature.

To be honest, it all seems so much more parochial, and so much harder to give a damn about, than before. So the record business is flawed? Oh no! Hold the front page! And as for the reproach about gangsta amorality, Chuck might consider how less persuasive the gangsta lifestyle might have been had PE offered a more appealing alternative to its lumpen hedonist fantasies. After all, who wants to live in a state of perpetual grievance - and with crap backing tracks?

SEMISONIC

Feeling Strangely Fine MCA

IT'S BEEN virtually impossible to avoid Semisonic's single "Secret Smile" for the past few weeks, the familiarity of blanket airplay compounded by songwriter Dan Wilson's penchant for endless repetition of the song's short hook: the first time you hear it, it's like you've known it since childhood. In places on this debut album, that's probably the case: more than once, on tracks such as "California" and "Never You Mind", I was reminded of the mid-Seventies mainstream sound of Elton John and ELO, a combination of high-register harmonies and well-upholstered arrangements that brings new pertinence to the latter song's image of "rolling along to the song that aggravates us".

Elsewhere, skinny-tie power-punk is more the order of the day on "Singing In My Sleep" and "Closing Time" - the latter presumably written after a heavy night on the ale. But offsetting the prevailing college-rock mood of disillusion and confusion is a welcome desire to please that elevates their music beyond the narrow confines of that genre.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons Almo

SINCE HIS death 25 years ago, the country-rock genre that Gram Parsons all but invented has swung in and out of fashion more times than denim jeans. It's currently back in favour with the likes of Beck, Wilco and The Mavericks, all of whom feature on this tribute album, along with The Pretenders, Steve Earle & Chris Hillman, Evan Dando & Julianna Hatfield, Lucinda Williams & David Crosby, Sheryl Crow, Gillian Welch and Elvis Costello, with Parsons' original foil Emmylou Harris doing several duets.

The standard varies from routine to excellent, with the best track by a country mile being Gillian Welch's version of "Hickory Wind", given due wistful character through David Rawling's ghostly organ and Welch's yearning vocal. Elsewhere, the Cowboy Junkies slow down "Ooh Las Vegas" to locate something more sinister in the song, while Victoria Williams' cornpone vocal style works well on The Rolling Creekdippers' version of Parsons' most religiose number, "In My Hour of Darkness".

FEMI KUTI

Shoki Shoki Barclay

LIKE PUBLIC Enemy, Femi Kuti's concerns on Shoki Shoki seem both familiar and parochial, being much the same issues that dominated his late father's work; but like Fela, he realises the value of expounding them in an appealing manner. Move their asses, as the old political funksters used to say, and their minds will follow. So the big, rolling Afrobeat grooves behind tracks such as "Truth Don Die" and "What Will Tomorrow Bring?" punch home Femi's message with no room for argument.

In truth, Femi rather lacks originality - his diatribes may employ the same kind of political patois as his father, but he has yet to develop the more surrealistic edge that gave Fela's songs their irrefutable power. His denunciations of police brutality ("Victim Of Life") and the neo-colonialist mentality of African rulers ("Blackman Know Yourself"), although sincere, come across like retreads of his father's work, while Femi's own concerns, such as the critique of dangerous sports in "Eregele", won't set the walls of the city shaking.

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