RECORDS / Blue room, ambient house: Andy Gill on releases by long-term dance favourites and old indie reliables

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THE ORB

UFOrb

(Big Life / Wauf Mr Modo

BLRCD 18)

S'EXPRESS

Intercourse

(Rhythm King / Epic 468567 2)

A YEAR is a long time on the disco floor, and S'Express have been away, it seems, for several. It's over three years since their milestone debut album Original Soundtrack, and in that time the group has released just two singles, both included here, with diminishing returns upon their initial chart success. In fact, a version of this LP was mooted for release early last year, and has been available in America since last summer; the reasons for the delay in releasing it over here are unclear, especially since Intercourse is a decent enough follow-up, albeit lacking some of its predecessor's punch and character. Now trimmed to just Mark Moore and his latest vocalist partner Sonique, the new S'Express is less beholden to the Seventies funk figures - Sly, Curtis, etc - who dominated Original Soundtrack. The result, while continuing the general emphasis on sex and anti-authoritarianism, is less individual, more of a piece with the general run of dance music. I like it a lot, though whether it fits in with contemporary dance culture trends remains unclear.

If the runaway success of The Orb's 39-minute single 'The Blue Room' - selling so fast it surely can't help being No 1 next week - is anything to go by, the latest dance-floor flavour is tangerine, and dreamy. UFOrb contains a 17- minute version of the single, alongside four other tracks that sail languidly beyond the 10- minute mark, and one - the title- track - that can only make it to six. This last is the only track, apart from the four-minute segment of 'The Blue Room' that constitutes the seven-inch version of the single, that makes any concessions to dance rhythm; even the reggae dub track 'Towers of Dub' is more inclined to nodding- out than stepping out.

The Orb's preferred mode is a Pink Floyd-esque soundscaping of slow, spacey electronic whooshes which pilot the listener through nebulous masses of sound, with little to grasp hold of in the way of hummable tunes or musical landmarks. It's ambient house, but with the house element diminished to barely a memory. At their best, they can evoke the airy reverie of Can's gentler work, though The Orb's is primarily a music of accompaniment - to sunrise, housework, sex, drugs, or daydreaming - rather than foreground attention. It's hard to imagine anyone actually listening to UFOrb, but it's nice to hear.

THE HOUSE OF LOVE

Babe Rainbow

(Fontana 512 540-2)

HAVING been wrong-footed by the Madchester / dance-slob culture, The House of Love badly need to regain their earlier ascendancy now that bagginess has effectively run its course. But not, I fear, with this album.

As before, the Sixties provide the main touchstones for HoL's style, from the echoes of 'I'm A Man' that carry along the single 'You Don't Understand' to the echoes of 'Within You, Without You' that lend 'Cruel' a certain Eastern promise. Like its predecessors, Babe Rainbow contains some often gorgeous instrumental passages, put together with delicacy and elan, but they're let down by Guy Chadwick's voice, which is fey and unconvincing, and his lyrics, which are getting more embarrassing as he grows older: '. . . that cry you hear's the wisdom on the cusp within the soul,' he claims in 'High in Your Face', to fairly universal bafflement, one imagines.

And where, once, Chadwick would sing about the emotions in a studied, unemotional manner, here there's an edge of unfocused resentment to some of the songs. The result is a rather bitter-tasting cocktail of love-waffle, cosmic gibberish and spite, which gives the impression he's gone through one of those group-therapy programmes and come out ego blazing, ready to set his world to rights.

PREFAB SPROUT

A Life of Surprises - The Best of Prefab Sprout

(Columbia 471886)

PREFAB Sprout have, since their earliest days, been so universally fawned-over that one hesitates to demur; but this compilation, culled mainly from the albums Steve McQueen, From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan The Comeback, seems overly one- paced - and a pretty polite kind of pace at that. One might at least expect a song called 'The King of Rock'n'Roll' to, well, rock, but one would be sadly mistaken.

Paddy McAloon is widely regarded as a skilled song craftsman, but he's more a dilettante songwriter, too smart for his own good. If he were really as good as is claimed, he would resist the temptation to sophistication and over-complexity that renders all but his best songs effete and self- conscious. 'Carnival 2000' is typical, the ungainly metre of its lyric sitting uncomfortably with a pert Latin rhythm.

Admittedly, he's come a long way since 'Cruel', the earliest of the songs collected here, which is tortuous and convoluted way beyond its own best interests. The latest single 'The Sound of Crying', one of two new tracks included, expertly places a bitter religious critique - 'Sometimes I think that God is working to a plan / Then other times I swear that he is improvising / Discordant and remote' - in the mildest, least hubristic of settings. Otherwise, apart from one or two tracks - the Springsteen jibe 'Cars and Girls', the oft-reissued 'When Love Breaks Down' (the closest a McAloon song gets to the 'standard' status that they aspire to), A Life of Surprises is bland fare.

CUD

Asquarius

(A&M 395 390-2)

CUD ARE the polar opposite of Prefab Sprout, operating in a vein of mild power-pop whimsy that extends from Orange Juice, at its gentler end, to Teenage Fanclub, at its rowdier. This is the kind of music that regards style as, at best, an annoying diversion from rock fundamentals.

But rarely have a group achieved quite so much with such glaring inadequacies: sophomoric humour, nerdish appearance, rudimentary musical ability, and an inattention to style that borders on the pathological. These guys are grunts from the rock'n'roll trenches, resolutely eschewing any semblance of pleasing embellishment in their music as in their appearance.

Their very plainness is, perhaps, the heart of their appeal, although Asquarius features meat 'n' potatoes rock riffing of such anonymity that the addition of any extra element - the violin on 'Once Again', the harmonica on 'Soul Food' - seems the height of sophistication. The producer, Jon Langford, has in the past shown himself expert at capturing loud rock guitar beasts without infringing their essential wildness; but here, Cud's pedestrian simplicities prove to be outside his grasp. The sound is ramshackle and thin, like a youth-club combo inflated beyond their abilities.

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