Pop: This Week's Album Releases

REM

Man on the Moon

Warner Bros

HAVING ALREADY celebrated his peculiar talent in their encomium "Man on the Moon", were the obvious choice to score the forthcoming biopic of Andy Kaufman, which stars Jim Carrey as the comedian better known as cute mechanic Latka Gravas in the television sitcom Taxi. Besides the title track (in its original form here and as an orchestral instrumental), have provided incidental music, ranging from the jazzy to the mournful, of which the poignant piano piece "Miracle" - Mike Mills' very own "Lick My Love Pump"? - is the highlight. There's also the previously unreleased song "The Great Beyond", an evocation of the comedian's questing spirit, which is at least as good as anything on 's past three albums. However, reservations that Carrey's gurning comic style may not offer the best representation of Kaufman's anarchic whimsy are borne out by his renditions of "Rose Marie" and "I Will Survive". And with "This Friendly World", a duet with Michael Stipe, Carrey (in the guise of Kaufman's vile crooner persona Tony Clifton) effectively curdles the song's gentle kitsch. An uneasy compromise, then, between the sentimental and the stupid, but pleasant enough as far as it goes.

RAKIM

The Master

Universal

"IT'S TIME to uplift," declares Rakim on this follow-up to his 1997 comeback The 18th Letter. "They think all we do is bust clips and puff spliffs and plush whips and push chips and touch chicks." It's as concise an assessment as any of hip-hop's criminal self-image. But if any rapper has the stature and the ability to alter that image, Rakim does. Without lecturing or hectoring, in tracks such as "I Know" and "Waiting For The World To End", on The Master, he uses his peerless street-scholar skills to provide an articulate analysis of rap's dark decade, touching on his own past failings and celebrating the fresh impetus he has gained through his Islamic beliefs. Significantly, the brags about guns are notably absent from The Master, the verbal violence of extravagant medical metaphors like "cardiovascular massacre" applied, in the best old-skool hip-hop manner, only to Rakim's superior microphone technique. With grooves furnished by the likes of Clark Kent and GangStarr's DJ Premier, and one track featuring the bizarre mouth-scratching technique as practised by the "human turntable" Rahzel, this is a work of commendable maturity and assurance. It is, on the whole, one of this year's few decent rap albums.

LOW Christmas Tugboat

THERE'S A shocking sincerity to Low's Christmas that's utterly disarming, a striking contrast to the parade of fake jollity and grotesque sentimentality that constitutes most Christmas albums. For once, the commercial imperatives that usually dictate these matters have been eschewed in favour of a more obviously spiritual approach: it actually sounds as if this American indie trio truly believe in the Nativity - which, being two-thirds Mormon, they probably do.

Low's sound follows the Cowboy Junkies/Mazzy Star tradition of slow, sparsely-inhabited sadcore, a style they've developed in a similar direction to the likes of Will Oldham, though with more optimistic results. The comparison is most telling on "Long Way Around the Sea", in which the three wise men's search for the infant Christ is recounted in haunting, becalmed manner, with faint organ and a veil of shimmering background harmonies conveying a saintly air of enchantment. "If You Were Born Today" and "One Special Gift" evoke a similarly holy atmosphere, while elsewhere the tone is less religiose: the opener "Just Like Christmas", for instance, employs Spectorish sleighbells and majestic rolls of tympani in a beautifully buoyant celebration of the seasonal spirit.

Three of the eight tracks are covers of seasonal standards, and though their "Silent Night" is overly precious and their "Blue Christmas" merely adequate, Low's version of "Little Drummer Boy" offers an imaginative blend of the industrial and the ethereal, using a lone organ chord and a cloud of white-noise static as the backdrop to Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's gossamer vocals.

It's this gift for making the most of a few simple musical elements that most closely allies Low's work with the lo-fi parables of Oldham and Bill Callahan, particularly on "Taking Down the Tree", where the dry twang of banjo and occasional clink of finger-cymbals combines with Sparhawk's odd telephone croon to convey the defoliated aftermath of festivities - a wasteland of "another broken reindeer, another candle, another velvet ribbon, another nosebleed". For all that, the most moving thing about the song is the depth of emotion they manage to bring to the phrase "winding up the lights" - a subtle acknowledgement of this little ritual's significance in the seasonal cycle.

"Despite the commerce involved, we hope you will consider this our gift to you," reads the brief sleevenote; and certainly, it's hard to recall another Christmas album that celebrates the season with such a winning combination of humility and imagination.

CHRIS GAINES (GARTH BROOKS)

Greatest Hits

Capitol

THIS ODD affair features big-hatted country behemoth Garth Brooks as fictional 1980s rock star Chris Gaines, whom he portrays in the forthcoming fake movie biopic The Lamb. Brooks' fans should approach with caution, as Gaines' putative oeuvre contains none of the bar-room balladry and rockabilly rave-ups associated with his creator. Instead, producer Don Was and the project songwriters have come up with a pot-pourri of dominant American musical modes of the past two decades, ranging from the falsetto soul of "Lost In You" and the Black Crowes-style funk metal of "Way of the Girl", to the all-purpose stadium rock of "Snow In July", where Styx pomp meets Steely Dan chords in a mutual smug-fest. Familiar elements provide the grain of authenticity - "Right Now" applies The Youngbloods' hippie anthem, "Get Together", to a social conscience rap, while "Driftin' Away" sounds like The Eagles' "Desperado" performed by Michael Bolton - but the problem with so accurately depicting the course of mainstream American "adult oriented rock" over the past two decades is that the results are, of necessity, pretty dull fare. A poisoned chalice from which Brooks, to his credit, drinks deeply.

BEASTIE BOYS

The Sound of Science

Grand Royal

"I EMBER looking out at our concerts," writes Adam Yauch in the sleevenote to this two-CD compilation, "seeing these huge drunken football jocks pushing their way up to the front and screaming the lyrics to our songs, and thinking, `What the hell is going on here?'"

It can't have been the first time that a pop group found itself fighting for the rights of the wrong party, though few will have colluded with quite such beery enthusiasm in their own predicament. The Sound of Science tracks their route out of that cul-de-sac, a journey taking them through sampler funk grooves, hardcore punk-metal, fake country music, bossa nova, jazz-funk jamming and Tibetan Buddhism - the last making its musical presence felt in Yauch's "Bodhisattva Vow", a work which absurdly attempts to encapsulate a key text of the faith in a three-verse rap. Can Buddhism really be that deep?

At 42 tracks, this is a rather over-generous self-assessment that would profit from judicious pruning, though personally I'd settle for just wiping the vocal tracks from most of their songs: as "Dub the Mic" demonstrates, any respite from their brattish yapping is not only welcome but musically revealing.

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