Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
BECK

Mutations

Geffen

GEFFEN HAVE been playing down Beck's Mutations, denying that it's the follow-up to the multi-platinum Odelay, and opting not to support it through touring or promotional video. It is, they claim, a stopgap release before the real follow-up next year. So why take up the option on an album originally recorded for the tiny Bong Load label? Wasn't the point of Beck's unusual Geffen contract that he would be free to put out less commercial products on indie labels? If Mutations isn't deemed worthy of support, why not let Bong Load release it?

It's the music industry equivalent of an each-way bet: so different is the album to Beck's previous output that Geffen probably weren't sure what the response might be, and so they grabbed it just in case it turned out to be a biggie - but without a huge financial commitment in case it flops. Because compared to Mellow Gold and Odelay, this is a strangely subdued, introspective affair, in which some of Beck's most interesting lines animate an air of generalised disaffection. The band backings lack the surprise and activity of earlier albums' sample-montages, despite an instrumental palette that stretches to harpsichord, strings, flute, trombone and tamboura. The only track which approaches the eclectic texture of his hip-hop blues style is "Diamond Bollocks", which skips restlessly between bouts of moody singing, enigmatic harpsichord figures, and cacophonous rock.

The atmosphere is one of genial melancholy for the most part, as if the gloom alone were not enough to suppress Beck's fecund imagination. There's a relaxed, worldly-weariness to proceedings, even when he's depicting the depth of Western death-culture in "Lazy Flies", or criticising third- world tourism in "Tropicalia", a more poetic update of the Pistols' "Holiday In The Sun". Although there's no discernible diminution in Beck's poetic extravagance, there's a focus and intimacy to Mutations which makes it probably his most personal album.

THE AFGHAN WHIGS

1965

Columbia

EVERYTHING'S MUCH the same as before, only more so, on The Afghan Whigs' major-label debut. They still play rock with the conviction and intensity of soul music, and Greg Dulli's songs still circle obsessively around the addictive confusions of love, like a vulture picking over the remains of his emotions - effectively, it's 1996's Black Love all over again, this time on steroids.

Judging by the shape of some songs, and particularly by Dulli's impression of Billy Corgan on "66", they've been signed to provide Columbia with their very own version of the Smashing Pumpkins. But the Whigs' approach is less schematic than that, more firmly rooted in R&B mud and sweat: when Rick McCollum's slide guitar snakes through a track like "Crazy", it's Duane Allman that comes to mind, rather than, say, Aerosmith.

It's appropriate, then, that the brooding 1965 should have been recorded at Daniel Lanois' funky old studio in New Orleans, a place specifically designed to emphasise atmosphere. With their standard two-guitars format augmented by organ, horns, strings, gospel backing vocals and even steel pans, the result is raw rock power on an epic scale.

CHER

Believe

WEA

AFTER THE attempt to re-position her as a more mature artiste with 1995's It's A Man's World, it's a surprise to find Cher re-inventing herself yet again, this time as a disco diva. As it transpires, the style suits her well - it's the natural home for such a camp icon, especially one who was raising temperatures as a top pop strumpet long before Madonna was trying out her first training bra.

With help from the likes of Junior Vasquez and Todd Terry, Believe follows the familiar disco imperatives of thumping Hi-NRG beats and songs that read like self-help manuals. Though entertaining enough, it often sticks too closely to old blueprints, most glaringly on "Strong Enough", which is a thinly-veiled photocopy of "I Will Survive".

The oddest aspect of the album, however, has already proven highly successful through the chart-topping title-track, where the vocoder-effect on Cher's voice makes her sound like a singing cyborg - appropriately enough, perhaps, for one who is so unashamedly prepared for personal physical reconstruction. As with her body, so with her career: it changes, but it goes on and on.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Africa Funk

Harmless

DRAWING ON sources as geographically disparate as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Texas and Washington DC, Africa Funk offers an all- too-brief account of the Seventies upsurge in African jazz and funk; a propulsive strain which took as many different forms as there are tribes in Africa.

Here, the styles range from the light, rootsy blend of flute and hand- drums that comprises Wali & The Afro Caravan's "Hail The King", to the big, brassy fanfares of Manu Dibango's "African Battle" - poles apart, but sharing the same sense of new-found post-colonial pride.

The undisputed king of Afro-jazz was the late Fela Kuti, here represented through 1975's "Expensive Shit", a typically political piece recounting how the authorities once lab-tested his excrement for traces of hemp. Like most of Fela's output, it's a lengthy bout of riffing suspended on a bed of springy rhythm guitar, an exact African analogue of the groove innovations of James Brown. Despite a tendency to lapse into etiolated jazz-rock occasionally, the album fully bears out the invocation from Oneness Of Juju's "African Rhythms": "C'mon! Move with the spirit! Get on! Get off!".

JONNY L

Magnetic

XL

DRUM 'N' BASS isn't quite the driving force it was a few years ago, particularly after that last, largely unlistenable double-album from Goldie. Following last year's Sawtooth album, Jonny L has been widely fanfared as the scene's saviour, and Magnetic certainly shows he's not prepared to rest on his laurels and settle for one sound or style. Tracks such as "PBX" and the aptly-titled "Uneasy" offer impressively spooky, expressionist soundscapes, a welcome relief from the insistent quacking and bleeping of synths elsewhere on the album, though ultimately no less oppressive in tone.

Album opener "Intasound" is typical, with electronic sputtering noises gradually settling into a peremptory rhythm, while the ghost of a melody emerges from the bricolage of sonic smudges. But as elsewhere on the album, Jonny's better ideas are held back by a reliance on jackhammer industrial beats that crush the music's subtleties to the margins, as if "experimental" were necessarily synonymous with "ugly". It's noticeable that, among the guest vocalists, only rapper Silvah Bullet's contribution on "20" can stand up to the punishing sound.

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