Tubular Bells III
(Warner Bros 3984243492)
THE COVER says it all: just a pale, grey-white background with that familiar twisted tube floating all alone, removed now even from the hint of a horizon. No name, no pack drill. It fits the product perfectly, for Tubular Bells III has rather less to do with music than with successful branding - and few brands are more recognisable than the Oldfield franchise, particularly in the European market where a good logo speaks louder than a snappy new title.
And given Oldfield's way with titles, perhaps that's for the best. Mike's spent several years searching for a new audience prepared to accept tracks with titles such as "Serpent Dream" and "The Inner Child", and believes he's found it amongst the ravey-davey summer immigrants to Ibiza. So, for the opening and closing tracks of TB3, he's lashed a few dance beats to old Tubular Bells melody lines, re-vamped them with impassive modern keyboard tones, et voila!, his accountant can sleep happily again.
As can the rest of us who encounter the largely featureless, soporific TB3. There's a terrible irony in the way it apes the vapid Euro-techno of such as Robert Miles, a genre Oldfield effectively invented 25 years ago. It's as if he's copying a copy of himself. The best (or worst) that can be said about the apparently endless project is that Oldfield is, by his own hand, stuck at exactly the same place as when he began his solo career. So how's that for progressive rock?
THE BEACH BOYS
(EMI 496 3912)
ANOTHER YEAR, another Beach Boys compilation - this one being the soundtrack to a two-part television documentary showing over the next couple of weeks. It's not, in all honesty, that vital a purchase, though fans will appreciate many of the out-takes and off-cuts included, particularly the version of "God Only Knows", on which Brian Wilson does the French horn parts vocally, engineer Stephen Desper's long mix of "'Til I Die", which features a complete instrumental run-through before the vocals come in, and a demo of "Heroes And Villains" on which Brian, still fascinated by pet sounds, impersonates the chickens which he originally envisaged at one point in the song.
Most of the other tracks are less revealing: there are a few decent live cuts, a smattering of trivia and radio ads, and work-in-progress versions of tracks such as "Break Away" and "Do It Again" which offer further evidence of Brian's painstaking perfectionism - in the case of "Help Me, Rhonda", capturing him midway between the original album version and the final single version, juggling mixes, vocals and instrumental overdubs as he struggled to alchemise another of his "pocket symphonies".
This is a worthwhile enough release, but it is not really worth considering until you have got both the Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds box sets in your possession, on which, to misquote John Lennon, genius is plain.
GORKY'S ZYGOTIC MYNCI
(Fontana 558 822-2)
FIVE ALBUMS into their career, and still Gorky's Zygotic Mynci teeter on the perilous cusp of success and disaster: too flimsy and unassuming to make a convincing assault on the nation's pop consciousness, but too mild and likeable to be consigned to the pit of failure.
Gorky 5, like last year's Barafundle, has a certain whimsical charm, though perhaps significantly, there's nothing here as engaging as the "Patio Song" which marked their closest attempt yet on the singles charts. It's almost as if, wearied by such proximity to popularity, they've drawn in their wings for this album.
Or perhaps that should be their fins: there's a pervasive watery theme to Gorky 5, with tracks having titles such as "Tsunami", "Only The Sea Makes Sense" and "The Tidal Wave". Even the music to the instrumental "Not Yet" rolls over and over like the swelling sea. Although this is not such a bad thing in itself, this aquatic ambience has had the unwelcome side-effect of dissipating such tentative shape and definition as Euros Childs' songs possess in the first place.
What all this results in is that while the band's Welsh rock colleagues, such as Catatonia and the Manic Street Preachers, have scored heavily by simplifying their approach, Gorki's Zygotic Mynci's already subtle whimsy has been diluted beyond the point of buoyancy.
GRASSHOPPER AND THE GOLDEN CRICKETS
The Orbit Of Eternal Grace
(Beggars Banquet BBQCD 201)
GRASSHOPPER IS Sean Mackowiak, the multi-instrumentalist musical prankster with Mercury Rev, whose own forthcoming Deserter's Songs is one of the albums of the year. This stop-gap spin-off features he and Rev flautist Suzanne Thorpe pursuing a few of the directions which wouldn't fit on the Rev album - which, considering their penchant for eccentric modes, gives some impression of the variegated weirdness involved here.
The closest the album gets to the parent group is probably "New York Avenue Playground", a relatively fluffy pop outing present in solo demo and more fully-rounded forms. But it's the exception here. Most of The Orbit Of Eternal Grace features more densely-textured soundscapes involving a bizarre menagerie of instruments like mellotron, metal pipes, micromoog, EML synkey, clavinet, rex, tone generator, and a slew of stylistically- delineated keyboards including "humming top organ" and "hockey rink organ".
The results are diversely reminiscent of everyone from early Kraftwerk (the title-track) and early Pink Floyd ("Sketches Of Saturn") to late Nine Inch Nails (the more assertive "O Ring"), and never less than intriguing. And in the swirling eddies of sub-aqua sound that is "The Ballad Of The One-Eyed Angelfish", they manage to employ water as a metaphor for imagination with far more conviction than the entire Gorky's album.
The Last Dog And Pony Show
AS THE soul-tortured helmsman of Husker Du and subsequently Sugar, Bob Mould certainly laid the groundwork for most American rock of the '90s, being the acknowledged grandfather of grunge through his influence on bands such as the Pixies and Nirvana.
Since the break-up of the Huskers, however, his periodic epistles of pain have grown successively more solipsistic, as Bob rakes over the dying embers of his relationships. Here, it's arguable whether anyone but Bob really needs to go through this piteous parade, which rivals Morrissey for its level of sheer self-obsession. As he sings in "Vaporub", he "never knew a person who could understand my words/why I chose to share them, I will never know". Which, frankly, makes two of us.
Mould plays everything on The Last Dog And Pony Show except for the drums (and the cello on a couple of tracks), layering sheets of guitar over each track until all chiaroscuro is concealed by drab, grey riffing. It's a sound that's hard to love, and his glib attacks at such barn-door targets as computer-games ("some foetal attraction to a fatal contraption") and porno performers just sound grumpy and ill-tempered, the knee-jerk reactions of a man whose underlying problems perhaps have something to do with the reverence in which his earlier proclamations have been held. He needs to change, and fast.