Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
WHITE BLUESMEN used to be 10 a penny in rock'n'roll, wailing out their facsimiles of someone else's pain. Kelly Joe Phelps, though, is different; like the generation of young black bluesmen who take their lead from Taj Mahal - prodigious talents such as Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart - his devotion is to the acoustic guitar, and the acoustic blues tradition of Leadbelly and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

The most significant difference separating Phelps from most of his white forebears, however, is the conviction of his connection to those sources - the naturalness with which he wields both the slide guitar and the old blues imagery. I saw him perform only once, at a small, intimate wake for his fellow musician Rainer Ptacek, and it was clear as soon as Phelps began playing that he was something special: his command of his instrument was mesmerisingly dextrous, but not in the deliberate, showboating manner of electric blues guitarists.

What was so fascinating about his slide-guitar technique was the casual, unobtrusive way in which it tracked the emotional contours of a song, each note being shaded and weighted to fit its task in an almost offhand manner, as if he'd never even bothered to think about it.

That kind of honesty burns through Shine Eyed Mister Zen, where Phelps's ego remains firmly subservient to his emotions, whether he's reinterpreting old songs such as "The House Carpenter" and Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene", or using old forms as the mould within which to cast his own observations. Sometimes, it's hard to see where one leaves off and the other takes up, as with his "Dock Boggs Country Blues", where the venerable white bluesman's meditation on the fiscal fickleness of friends serves as a template for Phelps's own complaints.

As with so many travelling musicians, Phelps's own songs, for example "Wandering Away" and "Train Carried My Girl From Town", are riddled with departure and dismay, with regret at the ease with which responsibilities can be abandoned. Elsewhere, childhood memories ("River Rat Jimmy") and ruminations upon time and family ("Piece By Piece") are delivered in a husky, powder-blue voice that is every bit as naturally engaging as Phelps's guitar-playing.

Like all the great blues singers, he's never afraid of exposing the raw nerves of his emotions, and this results in some of the most soulful blues expressions of recent years. In its near-egoless modesty and absolute commitment, Shine Eyed Mister Zen offers a potent reaffirmation of the power of the natch'l blues.

MA$E

Double Up Arista

IN THE CD booklet of Ma$e's second and final album, the rapper is shown in a shirt bearing the legend "HISTORY", which in the light of his retirement takes on a double meaning: he's history (in the sense of "outta here"), yet it's probably the fear of ending up history (as in dead) that's persuaded him to quit showbiz and dedicate himself henceforth to God. No fool he; two multi-platinum albums and goodbye, before anyone can decide they dislike him enough to shoot him. In the world of hip-hop, that's as sound a business plan as any, I suppose. Not that there's that much danger of Ma$e exciting much interest, either pro or con, with as routine a collection as Double Up, on which he tries to suggest that, though a wussy Christian, he's as hard as the next gangsta. It's all too familiar, from the grooves built from creakingly familiar old songs, to Ma$e's drab monotone voice, which even on a riff as perky as Shalamar's "A Night to Remember", is about as unemotional and desensitised an instrument as exists in hip-hop. Don't hurry back, Ma$e.

SNAKEFARM

Songs From My Funeral RCA

AS POST-MODERN musical exercises go, this is pretty watertight: ancient, doom-laden traditional folk songs given stylish trip-hop settings, like a more mannered version of the Beck method. Snakefarm, a Belgian husband- and-wife duo based in New York, acquit themselves efficiently enough on "St James Infirmary" and "House of the Rising Sun", taking care to research the "correct" older versions of the songs, and managing to avoid the Animals' intro cliche to the latter. Wistful whistle and accordion lends a ruminative, Celtic air to a "Tom Dooley", while "John Henry" is treated to a less successful reggae-lite setting. Anna Domino's voice brings an air of numb psychopathy to these murder ballads, rather like being buttonholed by a borderline psychotic obsessive, though it's the oddly poised balance between her demure harmonies and Michel Delory's fuzz-guitar part which gives the best track, "Pretty Horses", its peculiar power. But for all its careful craft, this is a somewhat bloodless, style- conscious reading of such stark material.

EL STEW

El Stew Om Records

EVEN IN today's topsy-turvy, po-mo musical landscape, you'd be hard- pushed to find another record quite as bonkers as this debut. Not so much a band as a collection of renegade misfit talents, El Stew brings together the bassist/ producer Extrakd, the keyboard/ sampler operator Eddie Def, the punk-funk drummer Brain (from Primus), the virtuoso scratcher phonopsychographDISK and Buckethead, a brilliant but shy guitarist who performs with one of the Colonel's family-size fried-chicken buckets on his head. Their music aspires to the condition of film score, judging by the movie dialogue samples and noir-ish atmospheres. It's the Gen- X equivalent of jazz-rock, a Laswell-like blend of lithe scratching, techno bleeps, portentous samples, trip-hop beats and glittery showers of Frippertronic guitar effects - fascinating at first, but increasingly tiresome as it becomes clear El Stew haven't much idea of where each track is headed. But, as with the recent Company Flow instrumental album, you'll hear stuff here you won't encounter anywhere else.

RACHELS

Selenography Quarterstick

SELENOGRAPHY IS the study of the moon's topography, which gives a reasonably accurate impression of the uncharted territory covered by Rachel's on their fourth album. Based around the core trio of Jason Noble (guitar, keys, vibes, etc), Christian Frederickson (mostly viola) and Rachel Grimes (piano, harpsichord), Rachel's occupy a position between Ludovico Einaudi's new-age musical sketches and the eccentric palm court elegance of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, using samplers and ambient noises to ground their pieces in a darker, more mysterious context than either. The results are intriguing but relaxing; with its vibes and quiet murmurings, "Artemisia" could be a subliminal meditation tape, while the dramatic, outgoing "The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis LePrince" is more like the theme to a Francis Durbridge Euro-thriller. In "A French Gallease" and "Kentucky Nocturne" they search with varying success for a space where the decorous gentility of their chamber stylings can co-exist with the urges of rock music.

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