Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture

Velvet Goldmine


GLAM ROCK was a curious phenomenon, an explosion of high camp and low morals that was important not just in bringing the issue of sexual ambivalence into the pop mainstream, but also in luring working-class lads and lasses to the more intriguing hedonism of art and culture.

For every fan who simply wanted to sprinkle on the glitter and squeeze into the Lurex, there were two or three others who discovered books, films and paintings through the promptings of Bowie and Eno. Essentially, for a generation dulled into inactivity by the low expectations of the education system, these dandy intellectuals provided a crash course in culture that managed to be both elevating and, not least, a lot of fun.

Even if it offers no more pressing pursuit than spotting which of the fictional bands involved represents which real-life outfit, Todd Haynes' forthcoming film about the era should be fun, too. There's certainly been a great deal of care lavished on this soundtrack, which mingles well chosen period artifacts - "Virginia Plain", "Satellite of Love", "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)", Eno's "Needle in the Camel's Eye" - with replicas of glam classics by younger musicians, plus a few new and not entirely congruent compositions by Shudder to Think, Pulp and Grant Lee Buffalo, of which the best is the latter's "The Whole Shebang".

It is the replicas that provide most of the interest, even if not all the participants are as perfectly suited to their parts as Brian Molko is to the role of Marc Bolan on Placebo's "20th Century Boy". Most impressive are the tracks by The Venus in Furs, a band featuring Bernard Butler, Roxy Music's reedsman Andy Mackay and Radiohead's Jon Greenwood and Thom Yorke. Greenwood and Butler combine well for the guitar break in "Ladytron", while Thom Yorke's impression of Brian Ferry will have many revising their impression of him as a humourless sourpuss.


The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill


BESIDES BEING one of the guaranteed banker albums of the year, the Fugees singer Lauryn Hill's solo debut will probably be one of the more irritating, too.

Not only does the album's moralistic tone allow Lauryn to wag her finger tiresomely at all and sundry, but the school-lesson interludes about the nature of love are embarrassingly crass.

I'd imagine that Lauryn's intention was to create a modern conscious- soul version of a gospel service album, though there's nothing like that level of emotional power at work here; instead, the little homilies have the same mushy quality you find in Robin Williams's films.

If you can get past these drawbacks, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has plenty to recommend it, from individual sounds - "Ex-Factor" includes the floppiest drum sound ever heard, like an old wet plimsoll slapped against a trampoline - to the excellence of tracks such as "When it Hurts So Bad" and the single "Doo Wop", which have a smoky, snaky grace unrivalled in modern soul music.

But just do not look for enlightenment - when a chin-stroking concept album like this eventually concludes "Everything is Everything", you cannot but help wonder whether it was all worth the effort.



Painted from Memory


THE FIRST Bacharach/Costello collaboration, "God Give Me Strength", augured well for this album when it appeared in Allison Anders' movie Grace Of My Heart; few of the soundtrack's other songs bore out the film's title quite so elegantly.

There may well be other classic compositions to set alongside it here, but frankly, it is so hard to tell when Costello himself is singing them. His is a bitter, starchy voice appropriate to acrimony, but singularly unsuited to such torchy territory as this.

The arrangements feature the familiar Bacharach trademark touches - the discreet brass, the piano, the solitary French horn - but it is like trying to gaze at a beautiful vista whilst a huge lorry belches diesel fumes in your face.

"This House is Empty Now", in particular, has the shape and sound of a standard, the kind of thing a Sinatra or Bennett might profitably attempt, and "Toledo" shows that Costello's gift for lines that stay just this side of the convoluted - notably, "Does anybody in Ohio dream of that Spanish citadel?" - melds well with Bacharach's ear for melody; but the strained manner of their delivery, alas, detracts fatally from their enjoyment.


Taming the Tiger


THE MATURITY towards which the Bacharach/Costello album aims is present in a more acute form on Joni Mitchell's Taming The Tiger, a timely repository of tart commentaries and sad observations.

The tiger in question is pop music, a form which, for a brief period in the Sixties and Seventies, appeared to be the lever for significant cultural change, but which has since been reduced, in Joni's eyes, to "genuine junk food for juveniles", the province of "the hoods in the hood/and the whiny white kids" - as succinct a critique of degenerative youth culture as any you'll hear.

The sour tone continues in songs such as "Lead Balloon" and "No Apologies", further criticisms of the way America is hurtling hellwards aboard a hand- cart.

But the soft musical texture undercuts her anger, its pallid, jazzy terrain of sax, occasional pedal steel and Joni's own "guitar orchestra" offering no great obstruction to the course of modern pop.

It is better suited, really, to the lilting bonhomie of "My Best to You" and the mournful "Man from Mars", the latter so devastatingly depressed that I had to check whether Ms Mitchell's ex-husband Larry Klein was simply separated, and not dearly departed.


Speed Ballads


TALKING OF junk-food for juveniles, modern pop rarely comes less substantial than Republica's, a synthetically "sassy" confection of prefabricated attitude and the most tokenistic of pop textures. It's the kind of pop your misguided auntie might buy you for Christmas: it makes all the right sounds and moves, but the hollow ring of inauthenticity is inescapable.

Vocalist Saffron is the Hazel O'Connor of her day, a one-dimensional singer devoid of emotional conviction, and the music devised by Tim Dorney and Jonny Male is all sound and fury, signifying nothing much beyond the weather eye they keep on pop trends. For all that, there's not much trace here of an effective follow-up to "Ready To Go" and "Drop Dead Gorgeous".

What makes it all the more annoying is the band's assumption that its whiny-white-kid attitudes represent a cutting-edge critique of modern culture. The truth, of course, is more interesting: songs like "Luxury Cage", "Faster, Faster" and "Nothing's Feeling New" essay a jaded, cynical reaction to a consumerist malaise of which Republica themselves are, ironically, one of the most obvious symptoms. "Everything is useless," flounces Saffron petulantly, "everything is stupid." Indeed.