Pop: This Week's Album Releases reviews by Andy Gill

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The Independent Culture
DAVE ALVIN

Blackjack David

Hightone

ONE OF the more interesting trends in modern American rock has been the drift back to simpler, folksy forms, as songwriters as diverse as Kurt Wagner, Gillian Welch, Bruce Springsteen and Beck seek a more direct, uncluttered connection with their roots. As singer and guitarist with The Blasters, Dave Alvin made one or two cracking R&B-fuelled rock'n'roll records back in the Eighties, but recent years have seen him work more and more as a solo folk-blues performer or, as here, within the subtle settings devised by his producer, the multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz.

Blackjack David, his latest album, illustrates the virtue of his revised approach: Alvin's songwriting has never been sharper, whether his characters are hymning the life of the road in "Abilene" and "New Highway", or regretting their dead-end small-town stasis in "From a Kitchen Table". The diversity of situations in these 11 songs is testament to his imagination, while the depth of character is sometimes painful to witness. Take the case of the patsy narrating the rural Body Heat scenario, "Mary Brown", who finds himself helpless to resist when Mary sets him up to murder her husband. Even when she testifies against him, he admits he'd do it again; trapped by his desire, he's powerless to alter his fate.

We're all in much the same boat, Alvin suggests, just impotent hostages to our aspirations. Alvin's songs stand as a denial of the American Dream, speaking up instead for the deprived and dispossessed - people such as the Vietnam veteran in "1968", trying to live with impossible memories: "folks say he's a hero, but he'll tell you he ain't/He left the hero in the jungle back in 1968".

Tragedy stalks these songs. In "California Snow", a border guard observes the plight of immigrants caught short by seasonal change, as he finds a Mexican peasant carrying his dead wife. "The California summer sun can burn right through your soul, but in the winter you can freeze to death in the California snow." The implication is clear: we're all just sad wetbacks at heart, lured by the pathetic spectacle of Hollywood, but ill- prepared for the erosion of values it entails.

HONEYZ

Wonder No. 8

Mercury

I SUPPOSE there might be a less imaginative album released this year than the optimistically-titled Wonder No. 8, but whoever's making it will have to hurry up. Certainly, it would be difficult to conceive of a more listless assault on the girl-group formula than the Anglo-French trio Honeyz offer here. There's a strange, android feel about the way they strive to include every single one of the genre's cliches - the vapid answering machine "messages" that punctuate the tracks; the pointless lists of thanks in the CD booklet; never using one note where five can be squeezed in; and, particularly, the language of the songs themselves, a portfolio of cheap sexual promise rendered in alien phrases such as "freak me", probably the world's least sensuous invitation.

In fact, if it weren't for Celena, Heavenli - yes, Heavenli - and Naima's limitations as singers, they wouldn't really have much character at all. Sensibly, they've put the obvious hits - the likeable "Finally Found" and the slight but cute "Do Me Baby" - at the start of the album, but be warned; things deteriorate rapidly thereafter. Colonised soul music, for colonised souls.

FINI DOLO

Rise

Arthrob

FINI DOLO is a collaboration between the UK house veteran Noel Watson and the New York poet Sonja Sohn, co-writer/co-star of the movie Slam. Together they've made one of the year's more arresting hip-house offerings, with Watson's slick, spare jazz-rap arrangements providing a strong, expressive skeleton for Sohn's smart, cool blank verse. She was blooded in the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe scene, and her poems probe at the interface of the personal and the political, in terms appropriate to their targets. In one of several tracks criticising the "crystal pimp daddy capitalist" style of hip-hop vernacular, for instance, she ripostes: "If you gotta call my pussy something, call it God." Elsewhere, a sort of feminist Egyptocentrism is posited against the genre's prevailing violence and materialism, though that doesn't prevent her from summoning more authentic sensual languor in one song ("Blow") than the Honeyz manage in an entire album. Like her fellow New Yorker Dana Bryant, Sohn speaks loudly of worldly intimacies - and judging by the stark accounts of tracks such as "Hustle For Life", "Void" and "Journey", hers is a hard-won intelligence indeed.

TOM Z

Fabrication Defect

Luaka Bop

TOM Ze who was a member of the Tropicalismo movement that revitalised Brazilian culture in the Sixties, remains as creative as ever. His third release for David Byrne's Luaka Bop label is a concept album whose individual tracks enumerate the welcome "defects" of personality - the appetites, desires and drives - that separate humans from robots. Behind the slightly corny notion lies a serious concern with the way those desires are increasingly manipulated by technological forces. Ze dedicates the album to the Third World underclass, who despite being "analphabetic", still continue to "think, dance and dream". "To think," explains the singer, "will always be considered an effrontery." Accordingly, he employs a wide range of sounds and methods, from the various Latin American rhythmic modes to fast, cyclical guitar parts in the African soukous style. It's a fascinating bazaar of sound, with surprises around every corner, never more so than when "O Olho Do Lago", a homage to concrete poetry, opens with the sound of an electric drill. Witty and passionate, Fabrication Defect has both head and heart in exactly the right place.

TIMBALAND

Tim's Bio: Life From Da Bassment

Virgin

TIM "Timbaland" Mosley is the current flavour-of-the-month producer in American urban/R&B circles, helming hits for the likes of Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Jay-Z, Aaliyah and Ginuwine. All four contribute to his solo debut, on which Timbaland seeks to showcase his "sound of the Dirty South" as a Southern equivalent of Puff Daddy's stable of rappers and singers.

Like most successful producers in this field, Timbaland has developed his own sound, using choppy beats and synth lines to create light, funky rhythms informed, but not dominated, by the staccato style of dancehall reggae.

His grooves manage to provide a versatile undercarriage for the vocalists, whether it's Ginuwine oozing his way lasciviously through "Keep It Real", or ghetto auteur Nas rapping on "To My". Timbaland himself raps on some tracks, with a deadpan, laid-back monotone style - except for when he adds a cartoonish, speeded-up high-register to the chorus of "I Get It On", as infectious a hip-hop cut as I've heard all year.

Fresh and forceful, it's certainly the Sound Of Young America, for the time being at least.

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