Record reviews

Suede

Coming Up

Nude 6CD

Pity poor old : two years ago, they were the Next Big Thing; two albums and one guitarist later, they sound utterly mined out, still taking the whip to a horse long since consigned to the knacker's yard. Their sound here marks no particular development upon their first two albums - in many ways, it's a step back from Dogmanstar - and their manner grows increasingly obnoxious.

Coming Up is an album fixated upon the supposedly doomed youth, the tribal underdogs of Nineties Britain who, for , appear virtually indistinguishable from the Diamond Dogs of a previous era. Songs like "Trash", "Lazy" and "Beautiful Ones" hymn the young outsider, but only the most elegantly wasted of young outsiders. For Brett Anderson, the most important signifiers are still "...the clothes we wear/ the tasteless bracelets and the dye in our hair", which would seem, on the face of it, to preclude true outsiders in favour of the same old arrogant "beautiful losers" that have left successively lower tide-marks on pop's beaches since Bowie first crystallised the notion into a style. After glam, punk, new romantics and goths, there's precious little mileage left in this particular rock mode, however many drug references they use to court tabloid outrage. just end up sounding like glam teds, stuck in an idealised Romantic wasteland of someone else's devising. Haven't they any ideas of their own?

's biggest problem is that Jarvis Cocker and Pulp do a similar kind of thing with so much more humour, irony and intelligence, not to mention better tunes. Even at his most brazenly direct, appealing to us to "sing along with the common people", Cocker still manages to arouse immense sympathy through his obvious humanity and fellow-feeling: however famous he gets, he is still clearly a man of the people. By comparison, Anderson's first-person-plural entreaties just seem like so much shrill rabble-rousing, a demagogue in search of an underdog. Surely, one ought to regard with suspicion any pop star who celebrates the fact that "we are young and easily led", or who preys upon the "cracked up, stacked up, 22, psycho for sex and glue"? Far from beautiful, Coming Up may actually be the ugliest album of the year.

Various Artists

Music from 'Phenomenon'

Reprise 9362-46360-2

This soundtrack to the Travolta paranormal-experience movie was executive-produced by Robbie Robertson, who did the sensible thing and immediately got several top producers involved with mainstream artists, ensuring the kind of sleek fortysomething profile that has already paid dividends in America.

The most intriguing of the collaborations involves Babyface producing Eric Clapton on "Change The World", a low-key acoustic groove on which EC tries out a new mellow-soul vocal style, slipping into falsetto on the chorus. It's pleasant enough, but hardly stretches either artist's talents. Much the same goes for Bryan Ferry's Trevor Horn-produced "Dance With Life", which slips down without leaving much of a trace at all.

Then there's the Don Was-helmed version of "Crazy Love" by Aaron Neville and Robertson himself - Aaron elides angelically and Robbie does his death- by-a-thousand-delicate-cuts guitar break, but their combined efforts struggle to overcome the memory of Van's fragile original.

Robertson fares better on Peter Gabriel's "I Have The Touch", a thematically appropriate oldie which the pair remix to reveal warm and sinuous hidden depths. Spreading the ethnic base a little wider, The Iguanas' "Para Donde Vas" is a bit like Hispanic bluebeat, with a big honking sax break carried on a muscular samba groove, and Thomas Newman's "The Orchard" sounds like a pushier version of something from Robertson's Native Americans project of a couple of years back. The best tracks, though, are oldies - Dorothy Moore's perfect "Misty Blue", JJ Cale's laidback "A Thing Going On", and an exultant, gospel-flavoured Marvin Gaye track - "Piece of Clay" (previously only available on a four-disc retrospective box) - which is virtually worth the price of the soundtrack alone. Various Artists

Sugar and Poison

Virgin AMBT16

The latest of David Toop's fringe compilations is subtitled "Tru-Life Soul Ballads for Sentients, Cynics, Sex Machines and Sybarites", which just about covers everyone, but rather overstates the case for what is basically Toop's boudoir tape, a selection of seduction soul classics designed to raise temperatures without any of the jarring shocks in sequencing that marked his earlier, more avant-garde compilations.

Accordingly, the mood throughout, from the laidback sermonising of Curtis Mayfield's "When Seasons Change" to the bright vibrato of Allen Toussaint's "Southern Nights", is relaxed but sensual, reaching a peak of sweat-soaked languor early on with Sly & The Family Stone's "Just Like A Baby". Predominantly drawn from the Seventies and Eighties, Sugar and Poison captures some of the pivotal moments of the genre - such as the entry of the big, booming hip-hop drum sound into the mainstream soul sound (Tashan's "Chasin' a Dream", 1986) - along with other, less influential but equally absorbing innovations, such as the smooth, new-world samba of Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band (1978), a much more subtle, slinky undertaking than August Darnell's later Kid Creole project.

The whole thing draws to an elated, post-coital close with Chic's "At Last I am Free", one of the few Chic tracks on which soul emotion doesn't play second fiddle to that lock-tight rhythm section. Romantic soul may be a crowded marketplace at the moment, but Sugar and Poison is well worth investigating in preference to that swingbeat compilation with the oiled torso on the cover. Various Artists

The Small Faces Tribute LP: Long Agos and Worlds Apart

Nice 001CD

Unfairly overrated recently as precursors of mockney Britpop, the Small Faces made an all-too-swift journey from blue-eyed pop-soul through whimsical psychedelia to the verges of boogie-band tedium, all in the space of around three years - a parabola of progress which any of the contributors to this tribute album would struggle to equal.

It mostly comprises meat-and-spuds Brit-rock from the likes of Dodgy (an "I Can't Make It" brimful of pop energy), 60ft Dolls (an agreeably rudimentary "The Universal") and Ocean Colour Scene, who do a poor Family impression on "Song of a Baker". Rather better are Primal Scream, who treat "Understanding" to a resolute Northern Soul stomp-beat, and Smiths- soundalikes Gene, who handle "The Autumn Stone" with commendable sensitivity and grace.

The few good tracks are more than outweighed, however, by the dross which bulks out the album, of which the funniest is undoubtedly Northern Uproar's attempt at humming the endlessly descending coda to "My Mind's Eye", which sounds uncannily reminiscent of schoolkids trying to cope with the elongated "Gloria" in the Christmas carol.

The saddest thing about the project, though, is the sheer lack of taste on view. Did these bands really pick songs like "Become Like You", "I've Got Mine", "It's Too Late", "Talk to You" and "Rollin' Over" in preference to "All or Nothing", "Lazy Sunday", "Tin Soldier", "Itchycoo Park" and "Sha La La La Lee"? Therein, perhaps, lies the most damning comparison between the current Britpop boom and its Sixties predecessor. Sebadoh

Harmacy

Domino WIGCD 26

The kind of band that use the phrase "figure doubt" in preference to "figured out", slacker thoroughbreds Sebadoh make a virtue of uncertainty, from their lo-fi sound to their continually perplexed struggle with the minutiae of existence. Life is such a problem for these boys, even the relatively simple matter of their own desires. "I'm willing to wait my turn to be with you," they sing on "Willing to Wait", "but I still have a lot to learn about me". What chance, then, the listener?

Harmacy is Sebadoh's most extended bout of navel-gazing yet, a succession of soul-searching musings upon loosely knotted relationships set to three basic types of music - sulkily trudging ("Worst Thing"), methodically indie ("Crystal Gypsy") or confidently hesitant ("On Fire"). At their best - the enigmatic melody of "Nothing Like You", perhaps - they sound a little too like Nirvana on downers, which is very down indeed.

At their more spikily exuberant, however, as on the Wire-esque instrumental "Hillbilly I", they have the slightly irritating manner of a daddy long- legs, with plenty of enthusiasm but an unreliable sense of direction.

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