Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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AS CARNIVAL weekend beckons in London, it's good to be able to reflect on the strength of the capital's black music scene, with General Levy's latest album joining Roots Manuva's splendid Brand New Secondhand from earlier this year as homegrown releases that can capably punch their weight alongside the best of American and Jamaican talent. In Levy's case, the best of Jamaican talent has effectively been co-opted into service, as many of Junior Hart's backing tracks employ bass and percussion sounds which were originally devised by Sly & Robbie, re-stitched here into frisky rhythm programmes that capitalise on their light, metallic nature.

The quirky, eventful drum'n' bass settings are matched by infectiously springy toasting from Levy, whose trademark turntable-scratch vocal gimmick reappears throughout the album, as though he were constantly leaving the studio via a squeaky door. Sometimes, as in "Feeling Good Today", his tics and hiccups are incorporated into the rhythm track, a staccato symphony of vocal syncopation.

Levy subscribes to a similarly materialistic worldview as that espoused by most American rappers, but it sounds like a lot more fun in his hands - New Breed is high on hedonism and generous self-appraisal, and refreshingly low on bullying threats and armaments.

"Money Maker" is typical, a spry dancehall bounce which finds Levy reflecting on the brainwork necessary to support his lifestyle as a "Benz driver... [with] a 12-CD car boot changer". Elsewhere, "Radical" employs a scattershot litany of auto-descriptive acclaim in which the General is variously assessed as capable, lovable, suitable, wonderful, desirable, huggable and the pinnacle. Though not - oddly in this instance - interminable. The same kind of lyrical list-making figures large in "New Breed" itself, as Levy pursues a cuisine-metaphorical appraisal of the world's women, country by country ("Trinidad girls send me hot like roti, Japanese girls send me raw like sushi," etc).

For all its reliance on Junior Hart's dancehall grooves, the album boasts a surprising variety of styles, thanks to a couple of collaborations with the jungle producer M-Beat (including the single "Incredible") and Hart's dancehall-salsa crossover "La, La, Migo Salsa".

Despite being a shameless attempt to cash in on both the Ricky Martin- fuelled salsa boom and the annual holiday-song bonanza, the latter nevertheless remains genuinely appealing, which is more than can be said for the hapless "Street Kids", whose ersatz jazz touches herald an appropriately ersatz social-conscience message.

That one flaw aside, New Breed is packed with positive energy and propulsive rhythms. Party on!


Outside In (React)

FOR THE past 15 years or so, Candi Staton has been presenting a show called Say Yes! on a local Atlanta gospel TV station, and releasing gospel albums with titles such as Stand Up And Be A Witness and Make Me An Instrument. But thanks to the Force remix of "You Got The Love" which was an early- Nineties UK hit, she's retained a more secular dancefloor profile through that period. That's included here in a euphoric "Now Voyager" mix, along with two versions of "Young Hearts Run Free", which seems a little excessive. The rest of the album, produced by UK house duo K-Klass, reflects the positive attitude of her calling through songs like "Love Yourself", while "Bouncing Back" and "Whadda You Want?" are in the classic soul- diva-survivor mould, strutting anthems of assertiveness. The album reaches a surprisingly comfortable rapprochement between the European beats - from shuffling trip-hop to glitterball disco stomp - and Candi's more soulful American inclinations, though the vocoder effect on "Love On Love" seems too deliberate an attempt at emulating Cher.


Sounds From the Gulf Stream (K)

FORMED FROM the ashes of Oxford shoegazers Heavenly, Marine Research sound not unlike Stereolab without the bleeps, a blend of innocence and experience in which disarmingly naive melodies disguise the adult themes negotiated by singers Cathy and Amelia. Their counterpoint harmonies are the most instantly noticeable thing about songs such as "Parallel Horizontal" and "Queen B", though deeper listening reveals a host of almost subliminal detail - low murmurings, ghostly vibes tones, melodica, even bassoon - behind the basic guitar-pop strums. The best tracks are those in which the various elements hang in satisfying equilibrium, such as "Hopefulness To Hopelessness", an assessment of reasons to keep going (eg, "I still want to get my hair cut like Jean Seberg"), and "Chucking Out Time", a song about clearing up one's life, done in a French chanson manner. When it works, there's an appealing innocence to Marine Research's music; but sometimes, when the pressure of enunciating the overly fussy melodies drains all emotion from the vocals, it verges on Stepford Pop. Interesting all the same.


Hepburn (Columbia)

"She walks in the sun/ To a future unplanned," sing latest girl-band Hepburn on "Tomorrow's Girl", the closing track of their debut album, adding, "She knows no other way/ For her, today is yesterday." And so is tomorrow, judging by the prevailing Sixties flavour of the track, which is basically "Trains And Boats And Planes" with different words. That's part of the problem with Hepburn, which tries to resonate on several levels - the Byrdsy jangle-pop of "Bugs", the slight Corrs-y Celtic sheen to "I Quit" - but never really convinces that the group might have any decisive character of their own. But perhaps that's asking too much of what is, essentially, girly-pop for the post-Sporty Spice generation (ie, they play their own instruments), lent a more streetwise edge by singer Jamie's pronounced cock-er-nee dialect, which seems oddly incongruent with the band's music, as if imported from a different milieu. The material, too, is less persuasive the further it strays from the standard hearts and flowers routine: a song has to be pretty darned good to carry off a title as bald as "Waiting For God", and frankly, theirs isn't.


Speak & Destroy (Madfish)

IF THEY'RE serious about their rock credentials, the girls from Hepburn could do worse than attend a pyjama party with My Ruin singer Tairrie B. Formerly with Tura Satana (the band, not the Goth icon star of Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), Tairrie B is the poster-girl for the Trenchcoat Mafia generation, with a Betty Page pin-up notion of badness, all tight leopardskin, panda-eye mascara and suspenders, and a determination to pursue self-ruination by any means. Tracks such as "Terror" ("I strike terror among men"), "Bright Red Scream" and "Horrible Pain (Inside My Heart)" loudly proclaim Tairrie's jaundiced outsider worldview, while her band pound out an oddly appealing version of the Nine Inch Nails- style industrial goth-metal juggernaut stomp. But despite her desire to be your Deadly Nightshade (if you'll be her Johnny Homicidal Maniac, of course), her boasts of being a "Blasphemous Girl" give away the essentially reactionary nature of her outsiderdom, whose ethical determinants are still firmly set by the religious culture she so clearly despises. Sometimes, agnosticism can be more extreme than atheism.