Records / Buy the other one, it's got bells on: Andy Gill on a new generation of dinosaurs - albums by Mike Oldfield, Roger Waters and Eric Clapton

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The Independent Culture
MIKE OLDFIELD

Tubular Bells II

(WEA 4509-90618-2)

THE FAMILIAR logo, looming out of billboards across the country, features the instantly recognisable bent tube in lustrous gold, like the freshly buffed tail-pipes of some exotic custom car, against a darker, royal blue sky unsullied by anything as namby-pamby as clouds. Thus is the hippy icon dragged into more style-conscious times and, like the wayward kiss- curl optimistically stuck to the forehead with a lick of spit, required to be both modern and elegant. A man in a suit, you can't help thinking, had something to do with this.

And not without good reason: Tubular Bells II is a shrewd gamble on the resurgent popularity of Seventies symphonic progressive rock in a market softened up by 'new age' activity in general and by the Tangerine Dream / Pink Floyd soundscapes of The Orb, in particular. Other updating alterations include the fragmentation of this formerly seamless flow of music into 14 separate airplay- friendly segments with titles offering either colourful hints ('Red Dawn', 'Maya Gold', 'Blue Saloon') or prog-rock intimations ('Sentinel', 'Sunjammer', 'Sunset Door') of their contents.

Not quite a remix, not quite a sequel, not quite the same as the original, TB2 consists of memories of the original themes re-routed through the modernising sensibility of Trevor Horn to become both slightly funkier than before and slightly furrier, the smoother surfaces of the sound compensating for the increased urgency and purposefulness of the beats.

Replacing Viv Stanshall, Alan Rickman's side-closing litany of instruments also reflects changing times: alongside the traditional glockenspiel and tubular bells are 'two slightly sampled electric guitars' and 'digital sound processor'. There are also, significantly, 'vocal cords' instead of 'voice', a female voice having been sampled across the range and the resulting breathy notes played like a mellotron - one of several touches that lend an odd artificiality to what was once considered rock's most organic piece of music. In another, Oldfield's distinctive fluid guitar lines have been fragmented into disjointed phrases, while, in keeping with contemporary requirements, an extra quarter-hour of music has been found from somewhere to add a spurious sense of value.

ROGER WATERS

Amused To Death

(Columbia COL 468761-2)

EVEN WHILE enjoying mega- success with Madonna, her producer and co-songwriter, Pat Leonard, was heard to voice his distaste for the star's disco-kiddy music, saying how much he'd always wanted to work with serious musos like all those British art- rockers that stunk up the Seventies, whose grotesquely over-inflated works he presumably considered big boys' music. And now here he is, adding sheets of synthesiser and production gloss to the latest utterances of the former leader of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, in songs which seem rarely able to restrict themselves to less than two or three parts, they're that damned important.

Pat is doubtless delighted, and it's just as well that someone is, because Amused to Death is as flatulent and outdated in its concerns as its title, which was borrowed from Neil Postman's drearily apocalyptic anti-television tirade of 1985, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Waters has always been the great misery-guts of rock, and Postman's book must have buttressed his dystopian world-view a treat, judging by the mileage he gets out of the slim and rather obvious proposition that, rather than being a conduit of information, television is in fact a refractor of it.

Thus 'The Bravery of Being Out of Range' characterises the smart-bombing of Baghdad as a multi-million dollar video-game; the two-part 'Perfect Sense' presents war manoeuvres commentated upon as if they were just another American sport; and the three-part title-track lambasts the televangelist communion of money and religion. Along the way, we are flagellated, in Waters' wearily declamatory delivery, with the familiar catalogue of mankind's less admirable achievements: impersonal murder, defoliant-deformed babies, self- important concept albums . . . well, maybe not. There is a certain irony in the album's implicit anti- American stance, that being the market in which it will probably do most of its business.

What is most offensive about Amused to Death is not the scenes of war and death and blasphemy we're supposed to revile, but the overweening condescension of it all, as if Waters really believes he feels that much deeper than the rest of us, that his pain is somehow more true than ours. Just about the only enjoyable moment in the whole pompous mess is the Andrew Lloyd Webber jibe in 'It's a Miracle', in which 'the piano lid comes down and breaks his fingers'. One chuckle in 72 minutes - at this rate, being amused to death could take an eternity or two.

ERIC CLAPTON

Unplugged

(Duck / Reprise 9362-45024-2)

ANOTHER in the made-for- MTV series of acoustic concerts that saw the release a month or two ago of Mariah Carey's similarly titled EP, Unplugged has more warmth and appeal than is usual with Clapton, who can sometimes seem an introverted and distant performer. Like Carey, he employs a full band to flesh out the spare acoustic set - though at least his bassist, Nathan East, by contrast with hers, appears to be playing an acoustic bass.

As you would expect, the set leans heavily on the old country- blues masters of EC's inspiration - the likes of Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and especially Robert Johnson - although Clapton's songwriting collaboration with another master, Robert Cray, on 'Old Love' has clearly spurred the two of them to create a modern standard, as effective in this acoustic rendering as in its original rock band version. Here, as on versions of 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out' and Leadbelly's 'Alberta', the chief supporting star of Clapton's band is the pianist Chuck Leavell, who has a quite remarkable feel and empathy for the blues.

The new compositions, 'Lonely Stranger' and 'Signe', the gentle Latin-flavoured instrumental that opens the set, are minor works by comparison with the old material. Well-known songs from EC's career, meanwhile, are transformed by their new settings: riding on warm, gentle dobro guitar, 'Running on Faith' becomes oddly reminiscent of Joe Cocker's 'You Are So Beautiful', while 'Layla', bereft of Duane Allman's soaring slide guitar or Clapton's stinging leads, is transformed into a gentle swing blues that works surprisingly well, though it's far from the impassioned cri de coeur of the original.

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