Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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RICHARD THOMPSON Mock Tudor Capitol

WE ALREADY know he's probably the finest guitarist to come from these isles, but if there's a better British songwriter than Richard Thompson currently working, then why aren't they making records as good as Mock Tudor?

These 12 tracks are written with razors, cutting expressions of emotional insecurity that resonate long after the songs have faded away. With great choruses, too!

Divided into three sections - Metroland, Heroes In The Suburbs and Street Cries And Stage Whispers - the album is supposedly a concept album about London, particularly the London suburbs in which Thompson came of age, though to these ears it effectively continues the pumping artery of painful relationship songs that comprised its predecessor you?me?us?.

Apart from one or two numbers like "Sights And Sounds Of London Town", an exercise in the old folkie standby of social realism which compassionately anatomises hookers and dossers as individuals, most of these songs address more human, rather than municipal, concerns.

The chugging rocker "Two-Faced Love" is yet another Thompson song of romantic insecurity, a vain shout into the yawning abyss of inter-gender confusion, while the stomping "Sibella" mines an acute intelligence in offering a love-letter to an opposite attractor: "Some say you can learn a lot from books/Thrill ride to second-hand living/Life is just as deadly as it looks/But fiction is more forgiving".

It's no wonder Thompson now lives in Los Angeles, if these songs are any guide to his memories of London's suburbs.

These are vile, dead spaces peopled by lonely "romantic ruins" like the "Uninhabited Man", the middle-class trophy wives of "Bathsheba Smiles", and old contemptible conservative class warriors like those bent on humiliating the interloper of "Crawl Back (Under My Stone)": "Some word, some code I didn't say/I missed one line in the play/And the trap shut tight".

For much of the album, Thompson's tone oscillates between heartbroken compassion and impotent fury, both emotions in which he seems more than usually skilled.

As ever, his work belies the old saw about men's unemotional nature, compared to women: these songs are as angry, distraught and self- lacerating as any written, whether Thompson's giving voice to the stalking doppelganger of "Hope You Like The New Me" or celebrating the brief blossom of a lost companion in "That's All, Amen, Close The Door". Someone should stick a blue plaque over his heart.

PUFF DADDY

Forever (Arista)

WITH WORLDWIDE sales of seven million plus, Puff Daddy's No Way Out was probably the biggest-selling rap album since the heyday of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer - and, it must be said, it was every bit as innovative and authentic as those two titans of crossover hip-hop.

Forever - which seems to last that long - is more of the same, but with slightly less familiar steals from old hits. There's been no discernible progress in Puff's lyrical ambitions, which rarely stretch further than the obligatory denunciations of unnamed rivals, unsubstantiated claims of his amorous prowess, and unappealing boasts of his fiscal achievements.

It wouldn't be too bad if he was a technically accomplished rapper, but the few moments of character in these 19 (19!) tracks come from guests such as Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z and Nas. Even the production bouquets have to go to Anthony Dent for his FX- and vocoder-laden efforts on "Is This The End, Pt 2" - an oxymoronic title that is the smartest thing about Forever.

THE WISDOM OF HARRY

Stars of Super 8 (Faux-Lux)

AS THE LOFT and subsequently The Weather Prophets, Pete Astor was a mainstay of the early Creation stable in the late Eighties. Since then, he has pursued a fitful solo career which has gelled recently into The Wisdom Of Harry, a lo-fi/sampladelic project, which owes much to the pioneering indie-hop eclecticism of Beck, judging by this compilation of singles and EPs released over the past year on obscure labels.

The 13 tracks (14 if you include the final 10 minutes of traffic noise) are exploratory collisions of troubadour sensibility and modern technology, in a decidedly British manner, bringing together sombre Nick Drake chords ("Loved"), desolate cello ("Valley Boy") and languidly trotting marimba ("Samovar") with some puttering drum-machines and menacing synth-scapes.

"Charles Crumb's Dark Days" is typical of the methodology: antique-sounding electronica under-pinned by a primitive drum programme and a gently looming string pad. Recommended.

SANTANA

Supernatural (Arista)

TEN YEARS ago, Carlos Santana was instrumental in helping revive John Lee Hooker's career with the guest-laden The Healer, so there's a certain irony in his adoption of the same strategy for his own comeback album, which features collaborations with Eric Clapton, Eagle-Eye Cherry, Everlast and sundry Fugees.

It's not half bad at that, either, though I'm not too sure about Carlos's notes to his collaborators. He describes Everlast's song "Put Your Lights On" as "a miracle that connects light with physical life and floods the listener with inspiration and hope". That's not quite how I heard the track, which finds the former House of Pain rapper in Hank Kingsley mode, declaiming "Hey now!" over and over. But it's pleasant enough. The best of the collaborations is "Do You Like the Way", a gently surging hip-hop/soul blend featuring Lauryn Hill and Cee-Lo. Elsewhere, the trademark Santana Latin-blues grooves are as spicy as ever. There's no "Samba Pa Ti", maybe, but few of these tracks want for either spirit or style. An elegant return.

PRINCE

The Vault (WEA)

DEEP IN the bowels of the Warner vaults, one suspects, entire regiments of minions are employed full-time in shifting around the shedloads of out-takes and unreleased material left over from Prince's tenure with the corporation. Now and again, a reel of tape falls off one of the pallets: this one's marked Old Friends 4 Sale, and through some bureaucratic oversight, it has found its way on to the company's release schedule. It was, the sleeve note assures us, "originally intended 4 private use only". As what, one wonders? Party clearer?

Comprising mainly bad jazz-funk and what sound like technical try-outs of arrangement strategies, these tracks reveal all too starkly the surfeit of musical facility that has killed off Prince as a meaningful creative force. Playing music comes so easily to him that for a long time he's hardly been pressured to stretch himself in any but the most token sense.

Instead, he takes refuge in being prolific, in the inauthentic hubbub of sheer activity. But so often, as here, the results are unutterably banal, little more than musical landfill.

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