Pop: This Week's Album Releases

REVIEWs
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The Independent Culture
Jimi Tenor

Organism

Warp

TECHNO IS truly the international language of pop as we race towards the millennium: after the French wave of Daft Punk, Air and Bob Sinclar, here's the Finnish method (by way of Barcelona), courtesy of cool blond uber-nerd . Quirky and quixotic, it's bags of fun, and aptly titled, too, Tenor blending his beats and samples to produce a warm, organic sound that's light years away from the more glacial tones of techno purists like his fellow countrymen Pan Sonic.

Tenor heralded his approach on this second album with the infectious single "Year of the Apocalypse", a slinky soul mambo anthem stating his firm determination to party on in the face of millennial doom. It's a dirty job, but with tracks as powerful as "Total Devastation", Jimi's the man to get it done. A monster funk groove barrelling along with the force of a runaway train, it boasts the most propulsive bass part since Parliament put the mothership into mothballs.

Elsewhere, Jimi's methods are more subtle, with a distinct jazz influence in many cases: "Beach Boy" is a delightful slice of early Sun Ra-style ship-of-the-desert soul-jazz, enigmatic but entertaining, while the twists of melody taken by the crepuscular "Sleep" would seem to owe as much to Charles Mingus as to anyone. Tenor's forte, however, is the kind of remoulded Sixties-style film music he devises for "Xinotepe Heat", where razzy sax and cool flute alternate solos over an understated, slinky funk groove embellished with occasional electric harpsichord glissandi: evocative, oddly timeless, it's like the theme to a surreal American cop show that somehow finds itself beached on the brink of the next century.

However, there's a pronounced element of camp in some of Tenor's music that can get annoying. It's not so much the fault of his arch, treated vocals on tracks such as "Muchmo" and "Serious Love" as the way his horns and strings sometimes overwhelm with their heavy irony. In the face of the latter song's absurdly melodramatic orchestral stabs and chord changes, Jimi's murmured desire for some "serious loving" takes on a decidedly sinister aspect. Though that's what you might expect from a man who claims "I want to be a palm-reader/So I can lie about your fate".

STEVE EARLE AND THE DEL McCOURY BAND

The Mountain

Grapevine

THE LATE Nineties have been something of a golden period for Steve Earle: this is his fourth album in as many years, and they've all been decent efforts.

The Mountain is no exception, offering a stream of agreeable surprises at the way Earle's weather-beaten, rock-inflected country dovetails so neatly into the frisky playing of the McCoury brothers' award-winning bluegrass outfit. They're in perfect equilibrium on "Yours Forever Blue", a womaniser's mea culpa, in which Earle's weary drawl leans comfortably against mandolin and fiddle, while there's a manic grace to the more uptempo numbers such as "Leroy's Dustbowl Blues", which dashes along regardless of its sombre subject matter.

The album's centre-piece comprises a pair of mining songs, "Harlan Man" and "The Mountain". It's not an optimistic picture: where the Harlan Man hopes to be a miner as long as his luck and his lungs hold out, the old-timer in "The Mountain" provides a more sober overview:

"There's a chill in the air only miners can feel/ There's ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed."

TLC

Fanmail

Arista

THERE'S SOMETHING eerily appropriate about the way that Tionne, Lisa and Chilli's blue, disembodied heads float across Fanmail's 3D cover, like virtual cybersex sirens just waiting for your call. It matches perfectly the virtual nature of their voices, so smothered in reverb that they seem to float like holograms. This lends them a weightless grace which, for all their sauciness, still manages to make the mannequin antics of their peers seem crude and mechanical by comparison.

All three girls contribute songs, the best being Tionne's "Unpretty", a complaint about someone who makes her feel "so damned unpretty" - which is hard to imagine. It's certainly harder to warrant than Lisa's self- determination anthem, "My Life", which is a proclamation of her right to notoriety (and this is hardly in doubt, following her alleged torching of the US footballer Andre Rison's $2m mansion).

Otherwise, it's business as usual: they still push nearer the sexual knuckle than other girl groups, with brazen tracks like "Don't Pull Out On Me Yet", though the charmless Babyface ballad "I Miss You So Much" surely over-compensates for their saltier attitude elsewhere.

SEBADOH

The Sebadoh

Domino

THE DEFINITE article in the title is well-earned: this seventh album is clearly Sebadoh's most solid effort, boasting a coherency which previous releases lacked.

In particular, the disparity between Lou Barlow's morose ruminations and Jason Loewenstein's more energetic, thrashy numbers is much less pronounced than before. For the first time, they sound something like a real band, rather than singers taking turns. Barlow's resolute glumness can still grow tiresome, but overall there's a conviction and unity to the album which is long overdue.

The ringing guitars and haunting harmonies of the single "Weird on the Way" place the group firmly back in the American guitar-rock mainstream that flows from The Byrds to REM and beyond, though elsewhere they remain committed to exploring less obvious musical currents. In "Bird in the Hand", the result sounds like grunge played with the wrong chords, preferable to grunge played with the right chords but of questionable utility, even so. Still, there's enough progress on The Sebadoh to compensate and, as they explain in "It's All You", "This is good. It's all we have."

ANJA GARBAREK

Balloon Mood

RCA

THE DAUGHTER of the Norwegian jazz sax stylist Jan, Anja Garbarek has already made waves in Scandinavia with this debut album, which was released there in 1996.

It's easy to see why: just as Jan has tried to push accepted musical boundaries through collaborations with such as the Hilliard Ensemble, so Anja draws on a wide range of styles and sources for her eclectic sound.

The co-producer Marius DeVries has obviously been influential in developing some of these grooves, which partake of techno synth lines, slowed-down gamelan and Burundi percussion, radio-tuning loops, yawning double-bass, found noises and sawing strings.

The results find Garbarek occupying a position close to Bjork and Stina Nordenstam, on the cusp of modern pop and more experimental modes of sound organisation.

Sung in a cutesy variant of Nordenstam's chilly-infant style, Garbarek's songs are mostly about alienation and the superiority of an imaginative inner life over mundane reality - a position that is reflected in the balance between airy vocal and more leaden groove on "Picking up Pieces". Earthbound, but aspirant.

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