Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
FEW OF her contemporaries have anatomised the encumbrances of desire with quite the focus and determination of Meshell Ndegeocello, whose 1996 album Peace Beyond Passion dealt intelligently with the knotty problems of self-definition in an age of sexual stereotyping. Bitter is her most effective offering yet, a subtler survey of the same emotional minefield featuring mature reflection upon faith, promiscuity and rejection, without lapsing into the indulgent self-pity of Alanis or Tori.

It's her most coherent release, too, thanks to the way she and her co- producer David Gamson have abandoned the jazz-funk stylings of previous albums - her trademark slap-bass is conspicuously absent here - in favour of sustaining the drowsy, post-coital mood with languid string arrangements. "Fool of Me" is typical, a slow, spare piano blues comprising just an ambient string pad, an occasional lazy drumbeat and a few widely placed piano chords, with a subtle swell of strings towards the end. The crepuscular atmosphere continues through "Faithful" and "Satisfy" into the title track, a quietly impassioned recollection of the moment of rejection. Like the album as a whole, it's "Bitter" in the way that Green & Black's Organic Dark Chocolate is bitter, a languorous, sensual indulgence in a sharp emotional flavour.

Ndegeocello's reflections on fidelity, temptation and desire are pitched on the cusp of hesitancy and insistence, cleverly tracking the vacillations in certitude that attend such matters: she's absolutely certain about the causes of emotional turmoil and what she thinks about them, but then again, not quite that sure... She's certainly courageously honest about her own part in such turmoil, with tracks such as "Grace" and "Faithful" offering apologias for destructive promiscuity: "No one is faithful/ I am weak/ I go astray/ Forgive me for my ways". At the same time she bleeds the obsession of the truly besotted in songs such as "Wasted Time", where she admits, "You rarely notice, but I hang on your every word", over a shuffling suggestion of a backing track in which electronic drum tones blend imperceptibly with pedal steel guitar.

The production throughout is marvellously sympathetic to the album's mood, so much so that Hendrix's "May This Be Love" is virtually unrecognisable in a slow, chilled version draped in woozy, Eastern-flavoured strings. Despite a roster of musicians that includes such distinctive talents as Joe Henry, former Prince protegees Wendy & Lisa, and the avant-jazz guitarist David Torn, she and Gamson have managed to render the diverse elements as a satisfyingly homogeneous whole; the result is one of those rare albums that can be played from beginning to end with no rude disruption of mood. And compared with the fake sensuality of most boudoir-soul offerings, Bitter packs a compelling erotic punch. A quiet masterpiece.


Fly (Epic)

IT SAYS something about the Dixie Chicks that their various explanations for their new album title fail to include the most obvious, at least to anyone who's heard a rap record in the last decade. Why look for any deeper rationale, when you're such fly girls? The same question was probably asked by their record label upon viewing an album sleeve that eschewed the Chicks' winsome features in favour of butterfly-wing designs, just one of several ways in which the girls attempt to loosen the stays of the tightly corseted world of country music. On a purely musical level, the single "Ready To Run" adds subtle Celtic crossover touches to the basic country template, while lyrically, there's a mischievous, post-Thelma- and-Louise edge to songs such as "Goodbye Earl", a black comedy in which an abused wife retaliates and kills her husband, and nobody notices. "It turned out he was a missing person that nobody missed at all," they sing with relish, trampling all over the unwritten country code which dictates that mistreated women should take to the road or the bottle. "The Dixie Chicks do not advocate premeditated murder," they add in a footnote, "but love getting even."

Various artists

Electro Lounge (EMI)

THE WORLD is currently so full of Ibiza trance'n'dance offerings, DJ remix albums and Now That's What I Call The Same Few Dance Tracks compilations that it takes a fresh gimmick to catch the discerning punter's ear. The gimmick here is to have studio modernists such as Utah Saints, Tranquility Bass, -ziq, Luke Vibert and Meat Beat Manifesto remix old lounge/exotica acts like John Barry, Yma Sumac, Louis Prima and Martin Denny, the equivalent sonic innovators of their era. In some cases, it just means cutting up an old track and lashing it to a standard techno loop or breakbeat, so that, for instance, Martin Denny's exotic Hypnotique is gradually overwhelmed by the "uber" in Uberzone's remix. Others, though, offer a more pertinent rapprochement: Tranquility Bass's remix of Louis Prima's Jump, Jive An' Wail retains the bouncy infectiousness of the original, while -ziq's transformation of Dean Elliott's Lonesome Road involves a bravura drum'n'bass barrage of sonic exclamation, enlightened by a Spike Jones gargle. However, the irony is that although they are enjoyable and occasionally even fun, these new designs are rarely as inventive as the originals.


Simple Pleasure (Island)

THE TITLE, of course, is heavily ironic - in Tindersticks' world, there's nothing simple about pleasure, which is simply the pretext for problems. The wracked, speculative cast of song titles such as "Can We Start Again?", "If She's Torn" and "If You're Looking for a Way Out" gives the game away; these aren't so much pleasures as emotional conundrums, even if the latter is in fact a cover of Odyssey's 1980 disco hit. Simple Pleasure was recorded live in the studio, a method that capitalises on Tindersticks' performing capabilities, although some of the songs still took as many as two dozen takes to get right. As usual, they mostly occupy a mournful space bordered by Stuart Staples' lugubrious club-singer groans and the deep burr of David Boulter's Hammond organ, with Dickon Hinchcliffe's string arrangements adding a wistful element of futile glamour, reminiscent of that conjured by great soul orchestrators such as Johnny Bristol and Willie Mitchell. Indeed, it's a much more soulful record overall than previous Tindersticks albums, though it's still hard to take Staples' vocals as other than a parody of emotional torment. If he were really as afflicted as he sounds, he wouldn't still be around.


You Me & Us (Innocent)

THE ENTERTAINMENT industry is increasingly becoming a game of (un)musical chairs, as battalions of micro-celebrities try to switch careers in midstream, or, in industry parlance, "broaden their profile".

Mel C decides she wants to be Indie Spice rather than Sporty Spice; Andy Cole believes he'd make an "outstanding" rapper rather than a fitful striker; and just about any hack thespian who's ever appeared in a soap reckons he ought to have a slice of the Top 40 cake, regardless of aptitude, ability or need. This week it's the turn of Martine McCutcheon, who apparently used to be in EastEnders. Her press release temptingly claims she is "as versatile a singer as she is an actress, if not more so", which might be the case, if she were ever required to play an advertising hoarding. Relentlessly mediocre and entirely lacking in conviction, You Me & Us is an extraordinarily bland, chameleonic effort whose dominant characteristic appears to be a determination not to stumble over any sound or lyric that listeners may not have encountered a thousand times before. As such, it may be considered a huge success. Hurrah for Martine!