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The Independent Culture
Debussy: Images Book II, Preludes Book I, Estampes. Paul Roberts (CRC, CD). Paul Roberts is an all-round Debussyan - pianist, author, lecturer - and from this disc it's clear that his relationship with the music is profound and intimate. All the repertory comes from the first decade of the century and is infused with the "sonorous halo" of sound that was Debussy's declared objective of the time: spaciously realised here, with a seductive sense of line, but also with just enough of the stifling introspection that prompted Carl Ruggles's blissful remark about the composer: "Nothing wrong with him that a few weeks in the open air wouldn't cure". I'm not wild about the engineering of the disc: the sound is warm but heavy, softening the already soft articulation of the Bosendorfer Roberts uses. But compared with the authority and quality of the musicianship you hear, it's not a major issue. Release of the disc coincides with Roberts's new book on Debussy (Amadeus Press) and a study weekend finishing today at London's South Bank. Michael White

Freakwater: Old Paint (City Slang, CD/LP/ tape). The voices of Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean - the two women at the heart of Freakwater's affecting update of deepest country tradition - could hardly be more different. One is sweet as a well-cooked pecan, the other rougher than the proverbial dog's bandage. Their 1993 debut Feels Like Third Time did for hillbilly nouveau what Madonna's Like a Virgin did for lapsed Catholic disco, ie, plenty. This worthy follow-up occasionally (with the fearful caterwauling of "Hero/ Heroine" for example) veers towards the unlistenable, but is more often transcendentally lovely. And "There's nothing so pure as the kindness of the atheist" might be the most subversive country line ever written. Ben Thompson

John Coltrane: Stellar Regions (Impulse!, CD/LP). Previously unreleased late recordings, made at the Van Gelder studio in February 1967, with a band of Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali. The governing aesthetic is the expected mystic free-jazz, but this is truly vintage stuff, with Trane's long notes and meditative tempo given the semblance of a pulse by Ali's remarkable drumming and Mrs Coltrane's unusually effective keyboard rhapsodies. The even better news is that there are evidently more albums in the can to follow. Phil Johnson

Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1 (Island, CD/ LP/tape, out Mon). "For us this was an opportunity to get all the stuff out that there isn't really room for on our own records," declares Adam Clayton, which is a rather cowardly way of saying that his band, U2, and their producer, Brian Eno, have put together some Music for Films-style ambient grooves which would have the average U2 fan nodding off. Of the 14 tracks, most sound like half-finished backing tapes, with layers of sampled rhythms, sounds leaking in and out, and Bono doing that breathy talking he does instead of singing these days. Ironically, the worst tracks are those on which they try to play actual songs instead of mood music: "Miss Sarajevo" is an underdeveloped dirge only just saved by Luciano Pavarotti's gargantuan voice, and "Elvis Ate America" is a funny-the-first-time tribute to the King. As for the rest, it does end up working, and is hypnotic listening in a late-night, half-asleep kind of way. And at least they had the good grace not to call it a U2 record. Nicholas Barber

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