Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
SCRITTI POLITTI Anomie & Bonhomie Virgin

IT'S BEEN 11 years since the last Scritti Politti album Provision, during which extended hiatus Scritti's frontman Green Gartside spent so much time languishing in Wales that friends started to call him Jonah. Judging by the sleek Anomie & Bonhomie, though, it could have been merely a matter of months, so little does his musical outlook appear to have changed. Indeed, listening to these 11 immaculately presented songs, you think it possible that the entiredecade has been spent polishingthem to their present lustre.

However, more than once I found myself becalmed in mid-track, wondering where the song had gone. So buffed and delicate are these pieces, at times it seems as though Gartside and the producer David Gamson have lost sight of their basic conception; some songs just dissolve into thin air, floating free like balloons that have slipped their guy-ropes.

The opening track "Umm" is like an exercise in misdirection, though its eclectic nature - an uneasy alliance between hard rock, hip-hop and ambient - does suggest the kind of hybrid music that Gartside aims for elsewhere. The best tracks, such as the single "Tinseltown to the Boogiedown", take the form of a New Age, philly-soul hip-hop pop, with Green's exaggeratedly feminine vocals counterbalanced by brusque rap passages. He's worked with the likes of Shabba Ranks and Tippa Irie before, so it's no real surprise to find Green using rappers again, though it's questionable whether Lee Majors and Mos' Def are of comparable quality. Me'shell Ndegeocello's contribution to "The World You Understand (Is Over + Over + Over)" is likewise offhand and perfunctory.

Left to his own devices, however, Green's touch is less sure than usual; "Mystic Handyman" is horrible cod-reggae with arty pretensions - his very own "Haitian Divorce", but not as funny.

But occasionally he touches the divine, particularly with "First Goodbye", a beautifully crafted expression of bemusement whose melody takes unexpected, graceful turns to evoke amorous confusion without souring the song's sugared- almond surface. The concluding "Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder" - a tableau of disastrous fallout from a doomed relationship - aims for the same pitch of refined distress, but falls short. Like so many of these songs, it comes waving a big sign announcing its sophistication, but, for all the care and polish taken in its execution, it lacks the easy, relaxed air that sustains the truly sophisticated.

SLAB

Ripsnorter Hydrogen Dukebox

SLAB HAVE so much going - a great name, a great album title and huge design "branding" - that the music almost seems of secondary importance. Thankfully, it's of a piece with the packaging, judging by Ripsnorter, the most engaging loops'n' beats album since the recent Chemical Brothers chart-topper. Slab are Lol Hammond, aka Girl Eats Boy, and the former Sabrettes label bossette Nina Walsh.

Ripsnorter avoids big-beat rhythms in favour of subtler, shifting polyrhythms and a more contemplative use of techno blips and squelches on tracks such as "Chaswick Control" and "Rabbits Moon". Darkly twanging guitars, wiry wah-wah licks and samples of such as Bill Hicks help to animate the oppressive atmospheres, though just when you think you've got their number, Slab slip in a dreamily enervated cover of Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You".

DAN PENN & SPOONER OLDHAM

Moments From This Theatre Proper

HERE'S A pairing custom-built to fit that BBC Songwriters series. Two quality composers present classic songs in revealingly naked settings. They are living evidence of the white legacy of Southern soul music beneath the surface cliches of "blackness", and responsible for signature works of the genre, including "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man", "Sweet Inspiration" and of course "The Dark End of the Street" - besides poppier hits such as "Cry Like a Baby". Moments features the pair recorded live last year, with just Oldham's electric piano and Penn's acoustic guitar. There's a warmth and intimacy to the results that belies the ostensible tragedy of the material; the audience chuckles good-naturedly at a particularly poignant line in "Ol' Folks" about giving flowers to your granny in her lifetime; "she can't use them when she's dead". Charmed, I'm sure.

NATALIE COLE

Snowfall on the Sahara Elektra

SNOWFALL ON the Sahara finds Natalie Cole mapping out a wider-ranging musical territory than most soul divas of comparable stature, drawing together the strands and styles she's touched on in her 25-year career. The Fifties modes so successful on the album of posthumous duets with her father are represented here by the doowop-flavoured "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming", the relaxed, bluesy version of "Corinna", and the jazzy swing of "Everyday I Have the Blues". Elsewhere, Dylan's dreary sermon "Gotta Serve Somebody" gets a new verse - about anomie and suicide! - while funky organ, piano and horn stabs lend "Reverend Lee" a sultry Southern soul mood. Her vocals mostly keep to the restrained side of overwrought, with occasional Aretha intonations (no bad thing) creeping into Leon Russell's "A Song For You", though it was perhaps folly to cover "Stay With Me", an inelegant conclusion to an otherwise handsome album.

BOY GEORGE

The Unrecoupable One Man Bandit

Back Door

BOY GEORGE, like Bob Geldof, has so many alternative strings to his bow that it's a mystery why he still keeps making records - especially when they're as drab and mediocre as this collection of odds, sods and duds from 1996, originally a fan club mail-order item. His uncertainty about his musical direction is grimly discernible as he flits from style to style, though at least there's a dogged fidelity to his concerns, with "GI Josephine" being a folk-protest number about gays in the military, and "She Was Never He" commending gender-benders in a sort of Spanish Squeeze style, all flamenco guitars, Beatle harmonies and references to the Old Kent Road. A song about his old Blitz Club rival Steve Strange is not the worst thing here; that dubious honour is shared by "Number One" and "Spooky Truth", a limply overwrought chunk of anthemic soul- rock that even Simple Minds would blush to release.

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