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The Independent Culture
Elvis Costello and the Attractions: All This Useless Beauty (Warner, CD/LP/tape). What with albums of cover versions here and jazz guitar collaborations there, you'd be forgiven for having drifted away from Elvis Costello. This is the ideal moment to look up his number and get back in touch. He wrote most of these songs for other artists, hence the range of styles: testifying and soulful on "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?"; Byrdsy on "You Bowed Down"; even ripping off Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on "Poor Fractured Atlas". The quality is consistent, though, with lyrics - more thoughtful than vengeful - that could fill a dictionary of quotations, and the Attractions complementing each other better than ever. Something of an all-new greatest hits album. Nicholas Barber

GF Handel: Ariodante. Freiburger Barockorchester, Wilhelmshavener Vokalensemble/Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, three CDs). A new Ariodante in Harmonia Mundi's excellent series of Handel operas is worth celebrating. The big news here is mezzo Lorraine Hunt, whose performance in the title role, a part containing some of Handel's suavest and sharpest inspirations, is overwhelmingly fine. In "Scherza infida" she sings one of opera's great arias, and rises shatteringly to the grief-laden occasion. Other soloists are good. Nicholas McGegan's period orchestra is generally zesty, and the recording's excellent. But Hunt is mesmerising: if you can't catch her in Glyndebourne's Theodora, hit the shops post haste. Dermot Clinch

Microdisney: Everybody is Fantastic, Love Your Enemies & The Clock Comes Down the Stairs (all Rev-ola CD). Anyone who missed out on these three masterpieces of melodic misanthropy first time around is strongly advised to take advantage of their long-overdue CD reissue. The passage of time has been kinder to heroically mismatched Cork exiles Cathal Coughlan and Sean O'Hagan than Thatcher's London was: Coughlan's splenetic eloquence ("James Dean, Lillian Gish, I'd like to buy the world a rope") rages more resonantly than ever, and O'Hagan's exquisite lo-fi backing symphonies, so mystifying to many contemporary audiences, now make prophetic sense. If Brian Wilson and Charles Manson had ever actually got around to recording together, the results would not have been half as scary as Microdisney. This was the flip-side of Peter York's Eighties, and these quiet songs of fear and self-loathing in Kensal Rise have a savage beauty that is all their own. Ben Thompson

Bim Sherman: Miracle (Mantra, CD). The On-U Sound posse go all Bjorkish with a truly wonderful album by the veteran reggae singer Sherman, aided and abetted by producers Adrian Sherwood, Skip MacDonald and Talvin Singh. Deep, melancholy, rasta ballads are placed in sparse tabla and acoustic guitar settings and pointed towards Bollywood by a string section recorded (as on Bjork's Debut) in Bombay. Bim's ecstatic, eyes-closed-to-look-within pose on the cover indicates the recommended meditative listening mode perfectly. Phil Johnson

Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell Quartet (Nonesuch, CD). With a quartet composed of violin doubling tuba, trombone, trumpet and his own guitar, the normally airy, pedal-driven atmospherics of Frisell's style (imitated by, among others, U2's The Edge) are slowed down further into stop-start cartoon music, with some tracks originating as accompaniments to an animated version of Gary Larson's "The Far Side". Emphatically post-modern, yet as satisfyingly aware of jazz-styles as any contemporary music, this is perhaps Frisell's best-ever set and likely to remain one of the year's essential jazz albums. PJ