Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture

Stars Forever (Analog Baroque)

Having so offended transsexual synthesiser pioneer Wendy (ne Walter) Carlos with a tribute song on last year's Little Red Songbook that the resultant brouhaha cost him and his US label $30,000. Nick "Momus" Currie opted to seek patronage in order to pay the legal bills. Accordingly, he offered to write and record a song about anyone who would send him a photo of themselves, accompanied by a 1,000 word description, and, not least of all, a fee of $1000.

A few months later, this is the result: 30 finely-honed aural snapshots of Momus's fans and benefactors, generously spread over two CDs. They're surprisingly detailed portraits, Momus treating each patron to the full panoply of his wit, erudition, and sometimes harsh judgements on their character. Take, for example, "Black and blue-haired schizophrenic, monomaniac, masochistic". With a songwriting style perhaps better suited to the stage revue than rock'n'roll - Currie is surely the Noel Coward of his era - Momus brings a restless diversity of approaches to his task. He depicts one patron's contradictions as a dialogue between the Devil and an angel, and he analyses certain of his Japanese fans in terms of their dedication to the their 3D graphics company or their strawberry-coloured iMac computer.

Some of the patrons are groups (The Minus 5) or companies (record label Minty Fresh), but all are treated with the same jesting spirit, and most are handled in as bawdy a fashion as possible, as evidenced by song titles such as "Coming On An Intern's Dress" and "Onan The Barbarian" - it's doubtful, for instance, that Steven Zeeland's mum will get to hear his eponymous ode, though his closest chums will doubtless have a good chuckle at Momus' unbroadcastable account of sodomy in the navy. Occasionally, a more famous benefactor appears among the friends, fans and wellwishers: kitschmeister Jeff Koons, indeed, draws some of the best lines from Momus in an assessment of Koons' kunst in which the composer reflects that: "Context is a game that you can play/And art can help you have a better day".

Musically, Stars Forever finds Momus at his most formulaic, with his trusty drum-machine and synthesiser employed in a variety of guises, and pastiches of everything from Plastic Bertrand to "The Campbells Are Coming" cropping up wherever pertinent - the latter carrying a droll comedy narrative about how American DJ Tinnitus got to play a Scotsman in a virtual movie called Pixel Claymores.

But whatever the subject-matter or musical style, as Momus notes in his introductory dedication to weirdo music of all kinds, it's always "Music from the roots/Not from corporate suits". And not entirely for the benefit of lawyers, either. Support your local singing satirist: buy this album.


Breakfast in New Orleans,

Dinner in Timbuktu (Rykodisc)

A SUPERSTAR in his native Canada for nigh on three decades now, Bruce Cockburn gets better with every album. This, his 25th, is a work of rare intelligence, displaying the controlled power that comes from a performer with complete confidence in his ability to convey complex psychological and emotional musings in a manner poetic and compelling. Set to light, lucid folk-jazz arrangements of distinctly Pentanglish form, occasionally embellished by rolling waves of kora and the harmony vocals of Lucinda Williams or Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins, these songs range from political ("Let the Bad Air Out") to intensely personal ("Use Me While You Can"), without once breaking step. Particularly effective are tracks such as "Isn't That What Friends Are For?" and "Look How Far", spoken reflections on friendship and destiny that open with brief, scene-setting verses establishing mood and place, before diving into deeper emotional waters.

Throughout, Cockburn writes with the soul of a romantic poet; wouldn't you love to have written lines like: "And you're limned in light, golden and thin/ Looks to me like you're lit up from within"?


Liquid Skin (Hut)

"WE JUST went apeshit," says Gomez's guitarist Ian Ball of the sessions that produced this follow-up to their Mercury prizewinning, platinum-selling debut. "We're 23, and we were let loose in some of the best studios in the world, with nobody telling us what to do." That's spectacularly evident on Liquid Skin, where barely a track slips by without metamorphosing through two or three disparate sections. Clearly, there's no shortfall of ideas in Gomez, as their basic swamp-blues grooves are enlivened here by cello, sitar, horns and whatever else came to hand at the time - though occasionally you are left wondering whether an outside producer might have been advisable in some cases, as songs like "We Haven't Turned Around" aren't so much arranged as allowed to sprawl. For all that, it's an impressive sophomore effort, more relaxed and confident than Bring It On, and not entirely beholden to Seventies American influences - as best illustrated by the engaging "Revolutionary Kind", where a subdued techno-dub section features little zips and curls of synth cavorting lazily with a delicate guitar counterpoint reminiscent of "On Broadway". The next thing you know, they'll be putting the swamp back into jungle.


Gettin' High on Your Own Supply


APOLLO FOUR Forty have worked their way to the forefront of the dance/ rock crossover scene without seeming to have come at it from either direction. Instead, they've secured a cosy little niche constructing slam-bang sound- track-house anthems for the movie industry; there's barely a track on Gettin' High on Your Own Supply that wouldn't pass muster on some sci- fi blockbuster or pulp thriller.

With vocals pared back to just a few handy catch phrases, the focus is always on their combination of full-phat grooves and churning guitar riffs, welded together from semi-familiar sources, like the aural equivalent of a Mad Max vehicle. Bombastic riffs are Apollo Four Forty's forte: the single "Stop The Rock" is typical, a Status Quo riff cyberneticised with no dilution of its propulsive power; elsewhere, the John Barry-style title track offers predatory fatalism on a grand scale. Further excursions into rap-metal ("Stadium Parking Lot"), ragga ("Heart Go Boom") and more ambient territory ("The Machine In The Ghost") illustrate their diversity, while the Hammond-fuelled funk-rock of "Blackbeat" comes perilously close to the turgid pomp of ELP.

Some mistake, surely?



Ravenous (EMI)

THE SECOND Michael Nyman soundtrack released in as many weeks, Ravenous accompanies Antonia Bird's black comedy about cannibalism in 19th century America - a difficult subject to capture musically, even with track titles such as "Let's Go Kill That Bastard" and (my favourite) "He Was Licking Me". The balance between horror and humour is impressively sustained, as is that between Nyman and collaborator Damon Albarn, whose affection for music-hall styles gels with Nyman's sly way with punctured pomposity. The pieces follow their utilitarian brief with some wit and style: the opening theme "Hail Columbia", for instance, offers a snapshot representation of U and Non-U settlers by slipping from a Salvation Army-style brass band section into a Celtic-flavoured variation on "Ten Green Bottles" done on fiddle, banjo and accordion. These instruments dominate many of the early pieces, conjuring up atmospheres of stately naivete ("Noises Off") and comical panic ("Run"). As the score proceeds, more exotic instrumentation - zither, whistle, pump-organ and creepy strings - expands the range of emotions covered. Surprisingly enjoyable.