RECORDS / Standard works of reference: Andy Gill on the coldly fabricated perfection of St Etienne, plus Duran Duran, Dr Dre, Digable Planets and East 17

SAINT ETIENNE

So Tough

(Heavenly HVNLP6CDP)

THERE'S something very French about Saint Etienne's music, as well as their name. Dilettantes on the trail of the elusive 'perfect pop', the duo of Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs construct a series of soft, candy-floss pop pillows, on which rest Sarah Cracknell's languidly innocent vocals, like a less coquettish Vanessa Paradis. It's a pleasant enough formula, especially when they indulge their Brian Wilson fixation to the hilt, as on the blissful 'Avenue', but there's little here to move you.

The single 'You're in a Bad Way' is typical, vocal balm with anodyne music, though the references to getting their kicks 'watching Bruce on the old Generation Game', which slot them in with the Seventies kitsch fad, sell them as short as that fad is likely to last. 'Hobart Paving' is more like the cultish pseudo-pop of the earliest John Cale solo albums, warm and mysterious but just as artificial, characterised by the same sense of eccentric dalliance with the basic pop forms. It's this fabricated, referential quality that's most attractive about Saint Etienne; the approach is echoed in the snippets of British films they insert between tracks, David Essex and Peeping Tom colluding in some seedy, whimsical idea of British culture.

So Tough is a marked improvement on their Foxbase Alpha debut, with far fewer of the tracks sounding like half-finished backing tracks, though there are still a few tracks that suffer from the group's pick 'n' mix approach to sampling. 'Conchita Martinez', for instance, swings awkwardly between tube-tunnel atmospherics, Hi-NRG disco and a widdly- widdly heavy-metal guitar loop - music of a kind (loud, passionate) they're clearly not used to handling but couldn't resist using. On their own territory of pastel-hued, impersonal plastic pop, however, they may be without equal.

DURAN DURAN

Duran Duran

(Parlophone 0 7777 98876 2 0)

FOLLOWING their last release, 1990's lamentable Liberty, it seemed as if Duran Duran were fated to become just another bit of Britain's enormous contribution to the EC band mountain, doomed to continue releasing less and less interesting records simply to justify their own existence to themselves. But this eponymous album shows a serious return to form, more mature and considered than anything they've done before. On one track, 'Breath After Breath', they even collaborate with the Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento, a brave experiment that very nearly works: in their hands, alas, the subtly convoluted Brazilian melody comes out sounding too much like Yes.

The single releases 'Ordinary World' and 'Come Undone' are probably the least interesting tracks here, mellifluous but insubstantial and, in the case of the latter, quite vapid. Better by far are the muscular funk cuts that dominate the latter part of the album, with 'UMF' sounding like a pale- skinned Prince. Lyrically, there are a couple of ungrateful stabs at former benefactors in the anti- American 'Drowning' and the info-tech society whinge 'Too Much Information' ('Destroyed by MTV / I hate to bite the hand that feeds me / Too much information'). Better by far is 'None of the Above', a belated acknowledgment of an old existentialist truth: 'Money, power, Holy roads / Freedom puts my faith in none of the above'. A surprisingly impressive comeback.

DR DRE

The Chronic

(Atlantic / Interscope / Priority 7567-92233-2)

A FORMER NWA producer and current frontman for the Yo] MTV Raps show, Dr Dre deals in what more advanced, Afrocentric rappers would recognise as 'nigga' attitude, the senseless celebration of guns, sex and bad behaviour with no notable idiosyncrasies , just a standard sullen, in-your-face attack. Still, only a fool would change a formula as winning as Dre's - five of the six albums he's produced have been million-sellers - and as this album's huge US sales testify, Dre is no fool.

There's a heavy vocal and compositional input from his crew Death Row, which includes the rappers Snoop Dog and The DOC, though none speaks more loudly than the funk samples Dre relies on for his grooves. 'Lil' Ghetto Boy', for instance, is virtually Donny Hathaway's 'The Ghetto' plus a few audio clips of last year's riots and a story rapped over the top: simple, but effective. 'The Chronic', incidentally, is ghetto slang for ganja: perhaps that explains the low-level humour in Dre's incoherent game- show spoof 'dollars 20 Sack Pyramid': to find this funny, you'd have to laugh at Cheech and Chong.

DIGABLE PLANETS

Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)

(Elektra/Pendulum 3360-61414-2)

DIGABLE Planets are rap's diametric opposite to Dre: their style is skeletal jazz-rap, often little more than a beat and a bassline, with a horn sample dropped in occasionally. So it is that Sonny Rollins finds himself furnishing the chorus to to the title-track, and Art Blakey provides a riff in the single 'Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)' that works like the Quincy Jones riff in the Dream Warriors' 'Boombastic Jazz Thing'. Indeed the Dream Warriors are the closest comparison to these Digable Planets, though there's less invention and imagination at work here than in the Canadians' universe.

The rapper Butterfly, who according to the credits 'conceived, freaked, arranged and produced' the album, tries to push the hip vernacular to implosion-point, unleashing a stream of all-purpose, timeless hepcat babble that would be just as easily understood by Fifties beats as Nineties fly-boys. He has a super-cool delivery, so laidback it's more read than rapped, but his metre is strict, an incessant line-per-beat attack which lacks the stretch and sway that a top rapper can bring to the verse. His pantheon is high quality, though - top cats like Miles and The Last Poets are his touchstones, while the track 'Jimmi Diggin Cats' claims that, were he alive today, Jimi Hendrix would be listening to Digable Planets rather than MC Hammer, which is undeniable.

EAST 17

Walthamstow

(London 828 373-2)

IT MAY be just an illusion, but teeny-pop outfit East 17 appear to have assimilated street style from the outset, with an authenticity lacking from the all-singing, all- dancing likes of New Kids and Take That, who are just too well turned-out: hair choreographed to match their dance steps.

The presence of old Pete Waterman alumni Ian Curnow and Phil Harding as producers obviously helps in polishing up the more chart-friendly tracks that open this album, but there's a solid core of quality to Anthony Mortimer's songs that places the group somewhere on the sliding scale between Stereo MCs and Jesus Jones, slipping easily between rap cool and pop chant. 'It's Alright' blends hip-house techno- pop with a reggae offbeat, which is about as omni-street-styled as modern music gets.

There are mistakes - 'Gold' is a Spector wannabe production that sounds pumped-up beyond its natural size - but there's a gentle power to the current hit 'Deep' and the tracks that profit from Mykaell Riley's deep bass-driven mixes, when they don't jar with the lads' more high-pitched vocal choruses. There's also, unfortunately, an authentically embarrassing navety to the list of dislikes in 'I Disagree' and the eco- conscience call to action 'Gotta Do Something'. If it's saving the planet you're after, boys, I'd suggest forming a band. That should do the trick.

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