Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL

Temperamental (Virgin)

TEMPERAMENTAL CONTINUES the blend of singer-songwriter introspection and drum'n'bass grooves that Everything But The Girl crystallised on 1996's excellent Walking Wounded, but with a little more confidence and a little less impact. The mood is strangely static, the rhythm tracks pared back to basics, some featuring little more than a funky hi-hat lick or cut- up fragments of Tracey Thorn's vocals as percussive elements - and the lyrics sealed in their own cocoon of misgivings. "Low Tide of the Night" is typical: a slow, smudgy groove, laced with tendrils of sax and a high synth whine, its lyrics reflecting urban alienation: "I've been living months alone, I've been avoiding things/ The phone rings, I use the answerphone." It's an atmosphere that doesn't alter, whether stuck in the pedestrian- precinct hell of "Hatfield 1980" or trawling for affection through the "Lullaby of Clubland". The geography may change, Ben Watt seems to say, but the inner landscape is the same. Very adult, very contemporary.

SUPERGRASS

Supergrass (Parlophone)

LIKE MANY of their fellow Britpoppers, Supergrass seem to be searching for routes out of that constricting genre that won't require too much of a leap of faith on the part of their fans. Supergrass, though, isn't as brave a move as Blur's last couple of albums - indeed, some tracks sound rather like the Blur of three or four albums ago, which doesn't bode well. The fascination with the wire-rimmed-glasses-era Beatles continues on songs such as the laidback "Shotover Hill" and psychedelic fantasia "Eon", while the lacklustre swagger of "Pumping on Your Stereo" recalls the Stones in their Satanic Majesties pomp. With keyboardist Robert Coombes now virtually a full-time member and Mick Quinn singing lead on several tracks, there are major changes to the sound, though sadly they appear to involve moving the short distance from Supergrass to Supertramp. Instead of adding to their appeal, the harpsichord runs, backwards guitars and ethereal strings serve to obscure the kernel of pop inspiration at the heart of these songs.

NINE INCH NAILS The Fragile Nothing/Island

MARILYN MANSON may be the pantomime clown of the Trenchcoat Mafia generation, but Trent Reznor is surely the keeper of its soul, the single most revealing barometer of the mood of nihilist American youth. And judging by this immense and intermittently impressive double-album, things aren't improving for the US's growing legions of Goths. As with previous Nine Inch Nails releases such as Broken and the five million-selling The Downward Spiral, the entire album is one long - very long - account of Reznor's intense alienation, expressed in terms of decay, coldness, fear, pain, concealment and abrasion. Lines such as "broken bruised forgotten sore" stipple the surface of NIN's industrial metal riffs like weals on a flagellant's back.

It's hardly ever pretty listening, but that's hardly Reznor's intention. "Taste the wealth of hate in me," he claims in "Somewhat Damaged", "...too fucked up to care any more." And again, in the haunting Gothic fog of "Even Deeper", "I have everything - yet I wish I felt something... Just how damaged have I become?" How damaged indeed; but at least this song suggests Reznor is finally coming to terms with his own anhedonia, acknowledging his perverse compulsion to ruin even his dreams of perfect happiness.

The tenor of the album is implacably solitary, doomed and contrary, with even God himself blamed for holding down "The Wretched". The closest Reznor gets to any kind of collective spirit is in "The Fragile" and "We're in This Together", anthems of nihilist co-dependency in which society's outcasts are united in tragic ruin: "The farther I fall I'm beside you." A dangerously seductive notion, made all the more alluring by the sheets of distorted guitar and industrial-funk grooves with which NIN numb the pain of their pessimism.

With its co-production by Reznor and UK Goth auteur Alan Moulder (Curve, Jesus & Mary Chain etc), The Fragile is one of those typical double-albums that would have made a great single album, with most of the better tracks appearing on the second of the two discs. There, the familiar grunge-stomps are punctuated by the swelling vastnesses of "La Mer" and "The Great Below", the loping slide-guitar blues groove of "Where is Everybody?" and the detailed surface of "The Big Come Down", on which Reznor comes shockingly close to Peter Gabriel.

But for all his undoubted skill and ambition, Reznor remains very much Johnny One-Note as regards subject-matter: as he sings in "Into the Void"(!), "tried to save myself, but myself keeps slipping away". It's a classic case of staring into the abyss and finding the abyss staring back at you.

TOM JONES

Reload (Gut)

HAVING SPENT the Nineties encasing his career in a shiny shell of irony, it's hard to take Tom Jones seriously any more. But you can't fault his effort, nor his determination to hunt a hit down any alley: after running the gamut of hip producers on 1994's The Lead and How to Swing It, this album finds Tom dueting with young 'uns apparently chosen at random. You expect to find Welsh chums such as Stereophonics, James Dean Bradfield and Cerys Matthews - hamming it up like a berserk Eartha Kitt on the charmless "Baby it's Cold Outside" - but some of the others beggar belief. The Cardigans? Portishead? The Divine Comedy? Even when the material is relatively congruent with Jones's style - "A Lot of Love" (with Mick Hucknall), "She Drives Me Crazy" (with Zucchero), "Lust for Life" (with The Pretenders) - most of these duets seem ill-matched and half-hearted. Worst of all is Tom and Space's version of "Sunny Afternoon", which is treated as bombastic melodrama, completely drained of the wry, laconic tone on which Ray Davies floated the song's waspier sentiments.

TORI AMOS

To Venus and Back (EastWest)

SO YOU'RE sitting alone on an empty bus, minding your own business, when Tori Amos gets on. Who do you think she sits next to? Listening to Tori's albums has always been a bit like being forced to be someone's unpaid therapist, as she babbles away unfathomably about her childhood, and judging by the studio CD of To Venus and Back - yes, there's a live album to treasure, as well - she's floating farther and farther from Earth's orbit with each release. Even with the aid of the lyric booklet, these 11 songs are all but incomprehensible, written in an opaque private language with scant regard for shared syntax, scansion or meaning, and sung accordingly. The music is desperately dull trip-hop, cryptic piano figures set to scratching noises, sort of Tricky meets Kate Bush but lacking the distinction of either. Tough going, then, with very little reward, but aural ambrosia by comparison with the live album, where tracks such as "Cruel" feature Tori shrieking dementedly, like Diamanda Galas minus the conviction, or Tim Buckley without the honey. Jaw-droppingly hideous.

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