Blur: 13 (Food)
Still trying to persuade us that they made Parklife in a previous life, Blur leave perky brass and polished vignettes even further behind here than they did on 1997's self-titled album. "Coffee & TV" is a sweet morsel of almost-Britpop, but the rest of 13 is a druggy haze of mutilated guitars, blank-stare vocals and hypnotic effects, courtesy of William Orbit, who also produced last year's Madonna album. Amazing as it may seem, the first single, "Tender", is indeed the most obviously commercial selection.
13 could almost be a remix album. The tracks are less like full songs than song fragments which have been wrenched and stretched out of shape, as if a jazz band were spinning off and away from the sheet music. It won't restore Blur to the hearts of Smash Hits readers, but after a few listens, everyone else should be drawn in: Blur's noisiest, strangest album is also their most beautiful and affecting, with the adventurous spirit and sonic scope of Radiohead and Beck. It confirms Blur to be a truly world-class band.
And yet, the freeform songwriting approach does have its frustrations. The lyrics are reportedly inspired by Damon Albarn's break-up with Elastica's Justine Frischmann, but you'd gather this from fewer than half of them. Why does one of the best lyricists of his generation think it's cooler to drawl "Give me fever/ I'm a believer, yeah yeah" than to write a proper verse? Albarn's Iggy Pop impersonation is even less convincing than his Chas'n'Dave one. NB
Skunk Anansie: Post Orgasmic Chill (Virgin) This doesn't start promisingly. Skunk Anansie's third album opens with a couple of characteristic agit-prop funk-metal work-outs just to prove that the band are still the angry politico-rock terrorists they've always been, however many million records they've sold. But these tracks amount to flailing, incoherent copies of their early material, and it's a relief when the band chill out, post-orgasmically or otherwise, and settle into a run of mid-tempo anthems and lighter-waving ballads. The lyrics dig into the guts of a relationship, Skin's voice is as unstoppable as ever, and a string orchestra is deployed more imaginatively than they usually are. Hit singles coming up. NB
Robert Wyatt: EPs (Hannibal)
Five-CD boxed set of extended-play releases by the former Soft Machine drummer and all-round eminence grise of avant-garde English pop and rock. The famous cover version of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" (which, following his accident, Wyatt memorably performed on Top of the Pops from his wheelchair), is included, along with the Falklands War-era "Shipbuilding" (written by Elvis Costello). There are also excerpts from the soundtrack to Victor Schonfield's The Animals' Film, together with works in progress and remixes from last year's acclaimed Schleep album. Hear 'em and weep. PJ