Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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WEEN

Paintin' The Town Brown Mushroom

MOST LIVE albums feature carefully-manicured versions of a band's greatest hits, with a few songs extended to give the guitarist his showcase. Not Ween's, which is of course a double-album. There are no hits - well, can you recall any? - and their renderings of "Poopship Destroyer" and "Vallejo" stretch to 25 and 30 minutes respectively - the kind of heavy-rock guitar blizzard that you hope is intended a little satirically. Chronologically, the material ranges from the scrabbly post-punk clatter of "Mushroom Festival in Hell", from their first European tour, through the country pastiche of "Japanese Cowboy", to the hoary psychedelic overload of "Voodoo Lady" from 1996. It's a weird mix, but their approach is appealingly warts- and-all: after the first chorus ("cloudy cloudy cloudy cloud") of their pot ballad "Puffy Cloud", one of the Weens turns to his accomplice and says: "It's pretty bad news, man - maybe we should just forget it?" They don't, though, and it's a toss-up whether mankind is the richer for their perseverance. Probably not.

LUSCIOUS JACKSON

Electric Honey Grand Royal

ON THIS follow-up to 1997's semi-appealing Fever In, Fever Out, Luscious Jackson appears torn between trip-hoppy grooves such as "Gypsy", which they're rather good at, and somewhat poppier offerings like "Space Diva", at which they're rather less good. The good stuff won't garner them a bigger audience, while the poppier stuff isn't poppy enough for proper chart success, despite the attentions of Tony Visconti and Debbie Harry on "Fantastic Fabulous".

Roughly corresponding to the trio's songwriters Gabrielle Glaser and Jill Cunniff, the two styles co-exist without ever cohering into a style the band could call their own - a situation not helped by their penchant for devising alternative characters, like the "underwater fraulein" of "Devotion", the "fertile futuristic flapper" of "Alien Lover" and the eponymous "Sexy Hypnotist". And even when a track begins promisingly - notably, the cool funk strut of "Nervous Breakthrough" and the grunge- pop of "Devotion" - the power soon dissipates. Not so much cool as undercooked.

MACY GRAY On How Life Is Epic

"I'M THE latest craze," sings Macy Gray at one point on this debut album, without a trace of egotism. She's not wrong, either - she has the kind of immediately arresting voice that, once heard, is never forgotten, and the kind of musician friends who know how to present it to best advantage.

Gray's no routine soul diva, aiming to impress with a high C and a cocktail frock. The press release describes her voice, not inaccurately, as a cross between Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin - the latter's raw edge tempering the former's vulnerability - though such is her idiosyncratic style that the laidback chocolate growl of Sly Stone is perhaps closer to the mark as she oozes her way through the opening "Why Didn't You Call Me" - itself a fair approximation of Sly's ability to create a compelling deep funk groove out of virtually nothing at all.

The album's title heralds the same type of autobiographical musings as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, arranged in a similar ancient-and- modern soul style that blends classic-soul influences with modern techno and hip-hop elements - as befits a crew that mixes old hands, such as Tower of Power percussionist Lenny Castro and Funkadelic guitarist Blackbird McKnight, with young guns such as Macy's co-writers Darryl Swann and Jeremy Ruzumna.

Worked up from endless jam sessions, the songs have an easy, natural feel that allows her to develop lyrical themes without having to shoehorn them into tight metres, while a refreshing frankness about drugs, sex and abuse gives songs like "Do Something", "Sexomatic" ("I am a sexomatic venus freak when I'm with you") and "Still" a realistic, lived-in tone at variance with the usual R&B fantasies. In the latter song, for instance, she admits that, despite an old lover's violence, she's going back to him because she still "lights up like a candle when he touches me".

Elsewhere, she treats the subject-matter of "Murder" - a revenge killing of a boyfriend's ball-busting boss - with an equanimity far removed from gangsta bravado. "I committed murder, and I think I got away," she confides. "I have no intention of paying for my crime, no fear... as far as regrets, I don't have any - would you?"

The way in which the standard, stark amoralities of hip-hop are smudged and occluded lends the track a troubling undercurrent that's far more affecting than rap's routine bluster about guns.

It's about people trying to find a little space of their own in the world, rather than pawns playing out violent fantasies.

That's how life is for Macy.

SCANNER

Lauwarm Instrumentals sulphur

ROBIN "SCANNER" Rimbaud's first release for his own label features six pieces, most of which proceed at leisurely pace in no specific direction. The 10-minute "Immemory" offers a lingering echo of the audio voyeurism of previous Scanner works by opening with several minutes of indistinct whispering, before a big, clunky breakbeat enters and Rimbaud fiddles with his machines for a while.

Only the lengthy "Lithia Water" imposes much of a rhythmic structure on Rimbaud's wanderings, with a sprightly drum'n'bass matrix supporting a foreboding string pad. The Proustian intentions of "Passage de Recherche", meanwhile, are carried on a slowed violin loop layered with smatterings of his familiar chatterings, the resulting effect being not so much a case of recollection as repetition.

But that's pretty much the way with Rimbaud's blend of unhurried electronic noodling and loops of sonic detritus: if repeated long enough, anything develops its own structure.

SIZZLA

Royal Son of Ethiopia Greensleeves

SIZZLA'S FOLLOW-UP to last year's excellent Kalonji finds the young Rasta toaster in even more righteous mood than usual. Barely a single one of these 13 tracks gets underway without some form of introductory tribute to Haile Selassie, and none concludes before Sizzla has excoriated Babylon at some length, along with sundry unbelievers ("The heathen a go drop off like ripe leaf") and the more loose-moralled of his ghetto brethren ("I and I no love slackness, that a pagan desire"). Though stern of demeanour, his heart's in the right place: Sizzla advocates self-reliance and study to overcome what he sees as the ingrained servility of his people. But there's a contradiction in his Luddite condemnation of the "Babylonian" technology that might help effect such uplift: "Computer is them world, them number is 666/ That's the mark of the beast, look out for microchip." Sure, we've all felt that way as we re-boot a crashed machine, but how exactly does Sizzla think Philip "Fattis" Burrell comes up with the grooves he toasts over? By banging two stones together?

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