Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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LAMBCHOP

What Another Man Spills

City Slang

UNHERALDED IN their own land, but justifiably developing a sizeable cult reputation over here, Lambchop are about as intriguing as American pop gets at the moment. Fourteen Nashville musicians based around singer- songwriter Kurt Wagner, they include an invocation to "visit the country music hall of fame in nashville, tn" on all their album sleeves. The advice seems unlikely to be reciprocated by the country establishment, as rather than ploughing the usual furrow of bars, beers, trucks, tears and line- dancing, they use the comforting textures of the form to present sentiments that can be cruel and unusual, though never punishing. Wagner's songs return country to its roots, dealing honestly with real-life matters and emotions, and his avuncular, semi-spoken vocal style sounds like your grandad rapping.

There's the usual air of acquiescent mournfulness about Lambchop's subtle collusions of strings, vibes, horns and pedal steel guitar - a vast, amorphous, not quite house-trained sound. On last year's tremendous Thriller, they leavened their sound with a veneer of MOR muzak and avant-garde musique concrete. Here, it's soul music that provides the added spice, with lovely versions of Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" and Frederick Knight's "I've Been Lonely For So Long", both delivered in a cracked falsetto that's immensely more moving than the vocal gymnastics of modern soul singers. Again, it's real music for real people.

HOLE

Celebrity Skin

Geffen

COURTNEY LOVE certainly qualifies as real people - sometimes alarmingly so - and on Celebrity Skin she comes closer than ever before to real music. It has already been widely surmised - not least, one suspects, by Billy Corgan - that this might have something to do with the presence of Billy Corgan among the credits. You can certainly hear his dabs all over "Hit So Hard", that ruthless sense he has of how to draw the epic out of the merely ponderous. But it's not so much the music as the lyrics which impress here; and, perhaps stung by the suggestion that Kurt Cobain may have written parts of Live Through This, Courtney has pointedly claimed sole responsibility for them.

It couldn't really be any other way: Love is her own muse and her own canvas, constantly hacking away at the psychological baggage she drags around. She makes disarming, pre-emptive strikes - "She obliterated everything she kissed/Now she's fading/Somewhere in Hollywood" - and wields parody with subtlety, most movingly when she asserts: "Miles and miles of perfect skin/I swear I do, I fit right in."

Surely, the lady doth protest too much. In her lyrical craft, and in Love's search for some kind of primal redemption, the influence of Patti Smith is clear - there's even some stuff about horses galloping away through "Heaven Tonight". It's a comparison she bears with some distinction.

MANSUN

Six

Parlophone

IT'S ENOUGH to make you weep. Having been hailed last year as the most likely saviours of the good ship Britpop, Mansun have gone ahead and succumbed spectacularly to the Second Album Syndrome with Six, as over-egged a pudding as has been heard in years.

The title-track sets the tone, with a brand of diffuse prog-rock which never allows the song to get established before seeking out new directions, wandering all over the place for eight seemingly interminable minutes, and further obscuring its purpose with pointless vocal effects. The riff, such as it is, sounds like a cross between Supergrass and Smashing Pumpkins - a resemblance accentuated by Paul Draper's voice, which shares some of Billy Corgan's sneery self-regard.

As usual with the Second Album Syndrome, Six is the product of too much gigging and not enough disciplined songwriting. There are no instantly memorable tunes like "Stripper Vicar" or "Wide Open Space" here. Instead of devising strong melodies and secure song structures, Mansun rely on muso flash and accretion, adding new storeys before foundations are firm, and using tarty ornate cladding to disguise the fatal imperfections.

Some of their ideas, too, are simply dreadful - "Fall Out", for instance, is simply the "Dance Of The Sugar-Plum Fairy" laden with excess and ill- fitting baggage. What a mess.

WILLIE NELSON

Teatro

Island

LIKE EMMYLOU Harris - who appears as backing vocalist on the majority of these 14 tracks, as it happens - Willie Nelson has opted for the warm and welcoming depth of a Daniel Lanois production on his latest album. Gently occupying the spaces around Nelson's characteristically dry and minimal vocal, it's a match so congruent that it seems extraordinary they've never worked together before. The drums are a touch obtrusive on one or two tracks, but for the most part Lanois captures just the right atmosphere.

As with its predecessor, 1996's Spirit, there's a pronounced Spanish feel to Teatro, which blends new songs like "Everywhere I Go" and "I've Loved You All Over The World" with earlier Nelson compositions such as "Darkness On The Face Of The Earth" and "My Own Peculiar Way", several of which date from the break-up of his marriage in the early Sixties. "I Never Cared For You" is a notable standout: the title is a lie, of course, poorly disguising the depth of feeling in lines such as "The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all".

"Home Motel", too, is a strikingly spare, empty room, furnished with just a few sparse phrases of piano and Nelson's desolate voice. The introductory version of Django Reinhardt's "Ou Es Tu, Mon Amour?", meanwhile, ably demonstrates the enduring flexibility of this country legend's 65-year- old digits.

PLUSH

More You Becomes You

(Domino WIGCD50)

LIAM HAYES raised perhaps unreasonable expectations with his previous Plush singles, "Three Quarter Blind Eyes" and "No Education", which suggested a post-mod symphonic-pop sensibility in the Eric Matthews vein, trying to breed new blooms from old grafts of Bacharach, Wilson and Jimmy Webb.

On this half-hour of sometimes stupefying piano balladry, his focus narrows to the latter, with a startlingly accurate impersonation of the great songwriter's over-extended croak. But that's as far as the comparison goes: for despite also borrowing a few of his chords, Plush songs seem to go out of their way to avoid the magnetic melodiousness of Webb's compositions.

Instead, these desultory smudges of songs slip by unnoticed, a rainy day's worth of weary reveries, drifting into each other imperceptibly, with no variation in style, attitude or tempo (funereal) to separate them save for the addition of a mournful French horn on "Save The People". Some songs, such as "(See It In The) Early Morning", have a bit more humming in them - but alas, that doesn't in itself make them any more hummable. It is, quite frankly, torture. Eventually, the self-indulgent veil of misery in which Hayes cloaks his musings settles over the album like a shroud, and you become acutely and intensely aware of just how long a half-hour can be.

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