Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
THE OLIVIA TREMOR CONTROL

Black Foliage

Flydaddy/V2

CONTINUING THE cinematic theme of their extraordinary 1997 debut Music From The Unrealized Film Script: "Dusk At Cubist Castle", The Olivia Tremor Control's Black Foliage is subtitled "Animation Music Volume 1", which gives some indication of its absurd, cartoonish momentum, and its distance from the "live action" of most rock music. That's not to say that the Athens, Georgia band eschew "proper" instruments or songs; but the way songs are woven into the album's fabric owes an immense debt to experimentalists such as Frank Zappa and The Residents.

A dizzying whirlpool of sound, Black Foliage resembles an ancient psychedelic artefact made by info-age hippies. The Zappa influence is most obviously apparent in the album's montage structure, the way they slip back and forth between gorgeous close-harmony pop, mordant horn arrangements and dense sound-collages. "In the blink of an eye you get several meanings," they sing in "A Familiar Noise Called `Train Director'", and they're not kidding: with a busy musique concrete collage underpinning an uplifting pop melody and soaring harmony chorus, it's a bit like what The Beach Boys might have come up with after Smile, had Brian pursued his vision further.

Throughout the album, melodies and instrumental parts reappear and re- combine, the result of a "systems pop" approach which treats writing and recording as an ongoing process. Each riff or idea is recorded at various stages of a song's history, with fragments stitched into the album's flow. So a guitar melody from one track will subsequently appear elsewhere as a faltering pump-organ part or ramshackle horn fill, like ghosts of ideas haunting the album's progress.

Behind the theory, however, lies a playful pop sensibility that ensures the appeal of tracks such as "Hideaway" and "A Sleepy Company". It would be wrong to downplay the weirdness of an album that includes a detailed 11-minute free-form sound-collage, but only the very dullest palate could fail to be entertained by Black Foliage. And as more and more listeners seek out alternatives to the increasingly formulaic mainstream, there's every chance that it could become this year's Deserter's Songs.

CHAKA KHAN

Come 2 My House

NPG

IN MANY ways, this three-way collaboration between Chaka, Prince and former Family Stone bassist Larry Graham is the most satisfying of Prince's recent works, thanks largely to the welcome presence of another, more distinctive vocal character on top of the familiar technomatic funk. It also features his best song in some while, the catchy parental instruction "Don't Talk 2 Strangers", which vies with a jazzy version of Graham's Seventies popping-bass showcase "Hair" as the album's highlight. Extending the Seventies mood even further, the album's funk is embellished here and there with some slick jazz-fusion touches, light brushstrokes of flute and piano lending tracks like "Hair" and "Come 2 My House" something of the flavour of Weather Report. The mix is as impeccably layered as you'd expect, and Chaka in as fine a voice as ever (though she only really gets to rip loose on "Journey 2 The Center Of Your Heart"); things can go somewhat awry, however, on her less successful songwriting exercises - such as "Democracy", in which, despite admitting she doesn't really know what the term means, Chaka decides she's agin it. Good call, Chaka.

MOGWAI

Come On Die Young

Chemikal Underground

FOR PROG-ROCK - which, like it or not, is what they deal in - there's precious little progression here from Mogwai's 1997 debut. Things still proceed at a snail's pace, like the soundtrack to a Post Office queue, and while the long way round can, in more scenic circumstances, be a rewarding diversion, it's as if they've deliberately chosen the dullest, flattest landscape possible, the musical equivalent of East Anglia.

Track after track follows much the same course: a slow, desultory cycle of swelling and subsiding, like a geyser that constantly threatens to spout, but never actually gets to do more than overflow occasionally.

Such landmarks as there are - the subdued glint of steel guitar in "Cody", the spoken vocal samples in "Punk Rock" (Iggy Pop, apparently) and "Helps Both Ways" - are kept at rigorously low volume, molehills that never grow into mountains. The addition of brass and woodwind textures to a few tracks suggests a hankering after early Seventies art-rock but, compared to the curmudgeonly musical character of Frank Zappa or Henry Cow, the listless Come On Die Young sounds like it's under heavy medication.

DAMIEN JURADO

Rehearsals For Departure

Rykodisc

TYPICAL! YOU wait decades for another Nick Drake, and then three busloads of them come along at once. Damien Jurado is the latest, joining the likes of Elliott Smith, Jim O'Rourke, Will Oldham and Beth Orton in extending further the possibilities of Drake's trademark folk-jazz style. Of them all, Jurado most resembles Will Oldham: he has similarly parched, plaintive vocals, and offers much the same type of briefly sketched narratives and observations set to spare, simple backings. Indeed, when he tries to rock things up a little too enthusiastically on "Honey Baby", it doesn't sit quite right with him - the introspective, sadcore mode is clearly more to his liking. That's not to say Rehearsals For Departure is a completely self-effacing, self-absorbed exercise: buoyed by slippery harmonica runs and punched along by chunky drums, "Letters" is a perky enough shuffle, and the album's most obvious potential single. The ambitious "Eyes For Windows", meanwhile, gives some idea of Jurado's more sophisticated strategies, being a pensive Drakean rumination topped and tailed respectively by birdsong and talk of love, and intriguingly soured by an obtuse, discordant string arrangement.

CAN

Can Box

Spoon/Mute

COMPRISING A book, a video compilation and two CDs of unreleased live performances, this Can Box is less like a typical rock retrospective than an art document - as befits the group's work and the culture in which it flourished. Schooled in jazz, pop, classical and avant-garde musics, Can were, in their Seventies heyday, unquestionably the world's foremost improvising rock band.

Their performances were often lengthy (one piece here, from a 1972 show at Essex University, lasts over 37 minutes), but they never suffered the longueurs that afflicted The Grateful Dead: there were simply too many maverick spirits in the Can to allow a musical thread to unravel uninterestingly - and crucially, they lacked the blues roots that made most rock bands such dull improvisers.

They were also fortunate in having their sonic explorations anchored by the tight, cyclical rhythms of Jaki Liebezeit, one of the finest drummers in any field, as illustrated here by the light, propulsive figures which drive "Dizzy Dizzy" and "Vernal Equinox". Bristling with invention in a dozen directions, this Can Box is a handsome testament to their questing spirit.

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