RECORDS / Sound affects and hippy chic: Andy Gill on new releases from Paul Weller, Robert Cray and Sugar, and a three-volume history of West Coast rap
(Go] Discs 828 343)
AFTER YEARS of retro-mod stylings of one form or another, Paul Weller finally reaches 1967 and offers us his Ogdens Nut Gone Flake. And, you might think, about time too. On much of this debut solo album, he sounds as if he's just been fuddled with his first spliff, from the electronic bleeps of The Supremes' 'Reflections' swooning across the backdrop of the opener 'Uh Huh Oh Yeh' to the chiming psychedelic guitars of the finale 'Kosmos'. It sounds like a lot more fun than the average Jam or Style Council record - that stern-faced finger-wagging is at a minimum - but it's solipsistic fun, rather than collective, and too anchored in the singer's particular nostalgic leanings.
The album features that drift from the political to the philosophical that often afflicts solo debuts, as a songwriter casts about, after years of youthful certainty, for a deeper, less contingent meaning to life. The socially aware soulboy in him still has his say, but it's less didactic now, more mellow-aspirational in a Curtis Mayfield / Marvin Gaye manner on 'Above the Clouds', or completely hippy-dippy like late-period Sly Stone on 'Amongst Butterflies'. In places, the album sounds like it should be on the Talkin' Loud label, as Weller arranges the classic sounds of psychedelic soul - fuzz bass, wah- wah guitar, Fender Rhodes piano, flute - into a passable simulation of the real thing.
The gatefold sleeve photos are a bit clumsy, mind: there's Weller, decked out in granny glasses, polo-neck and love-beads, but still not managing a smile. This is the Post-Modern world, but what, ultimately, is so interesting about Weller's disinterment of the past? And should we hang around waiting for him to get beyond 1970?
I Was Warned
(Mercury 512 721)
DESPITE THE continued presence of the Memphis Horns, this album isn't as completely dominated by the Stax soul influence as its predecessor, Midnight Stroll, though the deep-soul pop of 'The Price I Pay' and 'A Whole Lotta Pride' matches anything from that LP. Once again, it's the blues by any other name, but in a variety of settings, the most striking of which is the elegant samba lilt of the title-track.
The bluesman's more diverse approaches here even include a kind of Dirty Mind-era Prince funk on 'Won the Battle', but capped with a knuckle-knotting guitar coda that's simply dazzling. There's a greater emphasis than before on Cray's nonpareil fretboard work, though not, thankfully, at the expense of the textural depth his band has developed over the last few albums. Cray's singing, meanwhile, just gets better and better, his phrasing impeccably shaded for maximum emotional impact on a song like 'He Don't Live Here Anymore', which, dealing as it does with paternal distance and death, is something of a new direction for him - although it could be said that this is just another case of his characteristic probing of the cracks in strained relationships.
(Creation CRECD 129)
THE MOST surprising comeback of the year is that of former Husker Du frontman Bob Mould, whose solo albums had become increasingly, unlistenably miserable, but whose new power trio, Sugar, marks a sterling return to the form and melodic grunge-rock style he pioneered with his first group.
Compared to his introspective solo work, Copper Blue is cheery, outgoing and uplifting, a reflection perhaps of Mould's changed circumstances since he moved from bleak Minnesota to balmy Athens, Georgia. His guitar playing is as dense and dynamic as ever, but here it's in the service of chiming pop songs like the single 'Changes' and 'If I Can't Change Your Mind'. He remains open to influences - for 'A Good Idea', he takes several leaves out of The Pixies' book - though for the most part this is all his own work, rendered with a punkish enthusiasm that stands at odds with the prevailing nihilism of modern grunge-rock.
West Coast Rap - The First Dynasty, Vols 1-3
(Excello CDSEWM 050/051/052)
ORIGINALLY LOOKED down upon by New York-fixated fans, Californian rap has risen to prominence over the last few years thanks largely to the violent sensationalism of NWA and, more recently, the headline-hogging Ice- T. The man who frightens even the LAPD is featured on these three volumes of early Eighties rap in primitive style, yet to acquire his sinister deadpan sneer on such hitherto hard-to-find tracks as 'The Coldest Rap', 'Body Rock' and the original gangster-rap '6 in the Mornin' '.
The foundations of NWA, too, are featured courtesy of a lacklustre track by The World Class Wrekin' Cru, which included a few future NWA members, while Kid Frost appears in pre-Hispanic rap guise on a couple of cuts. The dumb comedy raps of Bobby Jimmy & The Critters - titles like 'Big Butt' and 'We Like Ugly Women' - speak volumes of a time when rap was still considered a chucklesome novelty; they haven't aged half as well as the erotic raps of such as The Egyptian Lover, Uncle Jam's Army and Disco Daddy & Captain Rapp, whose 'Gigolo Rapp' (1981) lays claim to being the first-ever West Coast rap track. It's noticeable how much more benign these tracks are than later offerings from Los Angeles: apart from Toddy Tee's 'Batteram' - a reference to the crack-house- busting tank used by the LAPD - there's precious little violence. Quite the opposite, in fact: Captain Rapp's 'Bad Times (I Can't Stand It)', a catalogue of dystopian detail from 1983, contains what must be the first-ever mention of Aids in a song. It's the genre's 'Eve of Destruction', for what that's worth.
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