RECORDS / A world of difference: Andy Gill reviews the latest releases from Peter Gabriel, Happy Mondays, Shamen and Public Enemy

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PETER GABRIEL

Us

(RealWorld PGCD 7)

AFTER YEARS of theatrical artifice in Genesis, followed by a solo career characterised by introspective musings on political and philosophical matters, with Us Peter Gabriel turns his attention to more personal matters.

The cover picture tells its own story: a ghostly, intangible female form, floating away from a Gabriel whose embracing arms are blurred into uselessness, a sort of Edward Miseryhands. It is a gulf not just between genders but between different forms of being, and the knotty problems thus engendered are unpicked in songs of noble candour such as 'Love to Be Loved' and 'Come Talk to Me', which opens the album with a light, poignant wheeze of bagpipes picking its way through a clutter of hand drums.

There's a gentleness to Gabriel's approach which serves his songs well, and which lends his combinative approach towards world music a sense of respectful universality. About the only time he picks up the sledgehammer is on 'Steam', another soul pastiche in which the precision of the arrangement compensates for any lack of soulful abandon. Elsewhere, the supple, tightly-stretched rhythms provided by drummer Manu Katche, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Rhodes are decorated with a variety of subtle touches from friends like Brian Eno, Peter Hammill and the vast array of world musicians Gabriel has befriended through his RealWorld and Womad enterprises. This gives him an unparalleled instrumental palate, which is applied with all the tastefulness and dreamlike nebulosity we've come to associate with Gabriel's co-producer Daniel Lanois.

Particularly effective are the layers of vocal harmonies provided by Sinead O'Connor for 'Blood of Eden', on which she demonstrates all the qualities of emotional depth mysteriously absent from her own album of torch-song covers. It's one of several outstanding tracks - 'Washing of the Water' is another - on which the carefully-etched backdrop lends the song an ancient heart akin to that suggested by The Band at their best.

HAPPY MONDAYS

. . . Yes Please]

(Factory FACT 420)

. . . YES PLEASE] finds the Madchester boom on its last legs, Happy Mondays' Caribbean recording sojourn having effectively unplugged the group from the street source of their power. It's a bit of a mess, to say the least, with Shaun Ryder muttering like a drunken bum, running off at the mouth with a fraction of the impact he used to wring from a few well-turned phrases.

The production, by former Talking Heads Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, is frankly baffling, with an uncertain centre and muffled edges, as if they wanted to apply a little more drive and unity to the Mondays' sound, but weren't sure which bit to focus upon, so they smoothed it all over. Occasional stabs at inserting interest into the arrangements, courtesy of sitar samples ('Monkey in the Family'), vibes hooks ('Angel') and suchlike seem token at best, while the band's desultory attempts to reflect their surroundings with Caribbean and Latin lilts just seem patronising. Ryder's babble is as mucky and id-driven as ever, but with a sad, washed-out feel replacing his usual snotty exuberance. But without his defining muse at even half-power, the group's compositional shortcomings become glaring on a barren piece of instrumental fluff like 'Theme from Netto'. All things considered, a spectacular fall from grace.

SHAMEN

Boss Drum

(One Little Indian TPLP42CD)

IF NOTHING else, the success of the Shamen's 'Ebeneezer Goode' demonstrates the creaking unworkability of the BBC's policy regarding drug references. After all, if someone chanting 'Es are good, Es are good]' doesn't qualify as a drug song, what does? 'Smoke crack', maybe? 'Take smack, kids', perhaps?

Boss Drum finds the Shamen apparently advocating drug use even more fervently than usual, with 'Re: Evolution' featuring a spoken contribution from psychedelicist Terence McKenna in which he assures us that 'history is the shockwave of eschatology' as he tries to co-opt trendy Gaia concepts into his New Age mumbo-jumbo. But instead of glorious revelations of the future, this kind of Aquarian Age babble simply suggests that we have in fact reached the furthest extent of universe expansion and are in fact hurtling back in time past 1967.

Despite this, and the increasingly annoying cockernee raps of Mr C, the Shamen manage to remain appealing thanks largely to their chameleonic grasp of populist musical mores. These range from the techno simplicity of 'Librae Solidi Denari' (not another drug reference, surely?) to the Orb-esque cosmicity of 'Scientas'. As regards their increasing reggae influence, the band seem more comfortable with the studio explorations of 'Boss Dub' and 'Phorever Dub' than with the white ragga of 'Comin' On'.

PUBLIC ENEMY

Greatest Misses

(Def Jam 472031 2)

A STOPGAP between albums, Greatest Misses features six new tracks and six remixes of tracks from Public Enemy's first four albums, the most effective being Greg Beasley's 'Blak Wax Metromixx' restructuring of 'Party for Your Right to Fight', which makes it possibly their funkiest-ever piece.

Taken as a whole, Greatest Misses thus forms a reasonably accurate portrait of the group for new fans, its subject matter focusing on the usual suspects - racial hatred, media misrepresentation, etc - as viewed through Chuck D's paranoia- tinted glasses. In 'Tie Goes to the Runner', which opens proceedings with another of those trademark cryptic chorus phrases, Chuck D reflects on the riots with a told-you-so resignation - 'Not surprised at all about the riot zone . . . This was predicted, not self-inflicted' - while Hank Shocklee's sample collage backdrop remains as visceral as ever.

'Air Hoodlum' takes shots at the educational system which uses up black athletes ruthlessly while neglecting to actually educate them, while 'Hazy Shade of Criminal' - splendidly serrated by Terminator X's turntable scratching - offers a broadside against the habitual- criminal view of blacks. It's left to Flavor Flav, however, in the blunt 'Get Off My Back', to furnish the album's obvious potential hit single, an anti-drug song with an infectious sing-along chorus.

(Photographs omitted)

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