RECORDS / Marching in the Vanguard: Andy Gill reviews Bob Geldof, the Sex Pistols, Cabaret Voltaire and Vegas

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Bob Geldof - The Happy Club (Vertigo 512 896-2)

STUBBORN as ever, Bob Geldof refuses to admit musical defeat despite the lukewarm response to Vegetarians of Love and his superior ability in alternative career avenues. Like that album, this one ploughs a cheery, rollicking but rather dull furrow of folksy whimsy, its low-impact cajun-flavoured folk-rock pleasant enough for a pub sing-song but too spruced up and lacking the roughness of authentic roots music.

Also as before, the figures of Dylan and Van Morrison loom large over Geldof's compositions, embarrassingly so in the case of 'The House at the Top of the World', a spoken reminiscence that's only a jar of pickled seafood short of a Van-load. The protest ballad 'Roads of Germany' and the blank-verse torrent 'Like Down on Me' continue his Dylan fixation, though this is perhaps caught at its best on 'Attitude Chicken', a laceration of Political Correctness that is Bob Geldof's 115th Dream by any other name.

There's an underlying thread linking some of the material, dealing with the attractions of nationalism and notions of Volk, most successfully in 'The Song of the Emergent Nationalist'. Here, the emotional and cultural tug of homeland is conveyed in relaxed manner against a Lanois-style ambient backdrop. Elsewhere, however, the carefully cultivated jollity of the backings sits uneasily with the big-issue globalism of his lyrics.

Vegas - Vegas (RCA 74321110442)

EVER since Blind Faith, pally star collaborations have rightly been regarded with some suspicion; this one-off combination of Dave Stewart and Terry Hall, however, is, actually pretty decent, perhaps because it was done as a work project rather than as an extension of friendship. It's a fortuitous dovetailing of Stewart's musical mise-en-scene and Hall's droll pop musings, the ex-Eurythmic buffing a sheen of hope on to the ex-Special's lugubrious lyrics.

The pair don't build the sonic cathedrals of the Stewart / Lennox partnership; these are more modest, less emotionally dramatic, but more interestingly detailed edifices. There's less fluff here than on a typical Eurythmics album too, with only the cover of the turgid Euro-ballad 'She' stretching one's patience.

Working with Hall has clearly brought out the white rasta in Stewart, the bulk of these tracks built upon the reggae offbeat, from the tight skank of 'Take Me for What I Am' to the Depeche Mode-style electro-pop of 'The Thought of You' and the dub-pop of 'Nothing Alas Alack'. The album's highlight, though, is 'Walk into the Wind', a gentle Caribbean pop mood with a well- crafted love lyric and a chorus that adds an extra layer of harmony counterpoint each time round, building to a euphoric finale. It's quite exquisite, rather like what the Pet Shop Boys might do if they were as sentimental as P M Dawn.

Lyrically, Hall's on top form for most of the album. His dry, Keaton-esque way with a deadpan observation enables him to thread a line like 'I even like myself again' into the album's most positive song, whilst retaining the nerve to write a couplet as dumb as 'Sometimes she gets wriggly / Sometimes she lies still'. That takes a special kind of talent, and a fair amount of gall, too.

Cabaret Voltaire - Plasticity (Plastex EXL:CD 03); - Lil' Louis & the World - Journey with the Lonely (FFRR 828 338-2)

THE CABS' latest is their best new work in quite some time, a collection of fluid pieces heavily influenced by the artful American techno style of Derrick May. The beats are as insistent as before, but there's a spring and flexibility to the synthesiser tones that renders it unusually user-friendly, a cool and sanguine soundtrack for the blur of riot footage featured on the sleeve. Highly recommended as a refreshing, uplifting alternative to the frenzied dervish whirl of most British techno.

Lil' Louis' belated follow-up to The Mind of Lil' Louis, on the other hand, finds the studio enigma branching out from his earlier soft house pulses like 'French Kiss' into a more eclectic soft-soul style, and coming over all of a Prince in his sleevenote to let us know his exact philosophical and sociological position - which is just as well, since I might have thought Journey with the Lonely was just another albumful of seductive low-key disco pulses embellished with occasional horns and female vocals. Not that they're singing anything worth a second glance: Louis doesn't so much write songs as assemble moods, most successfully in 'Club Lonely', which captures the singles-bar desperation of clubland perfectly.

Sex Pistols - Kiss This (Virgin CDVX 2702)

SINCE they split from EMI following a dispute over their desire for an 'unlimited edition with an unlimited supply' (as related in 'EMI'), it's ironic that in this, the ultimate Pistols retrospective, the band should return to the EMI fold with a limited edition set - early purchasers are offered a free CD of the group live in Trondheim. But a lot of principles have evaporated since then, judging by the artwork: although the track annotations are by Lydon, Matlock, Cook and Jones, who wrote the bulk of the material, it's Sid's face that shares the front cover with Rotten, the sacrificial lamb dug up again.

It's astounding how far their slim portfolio of songs has stretched: Kiss This is the Bollocks album bulked out with a full complement of singles, B-sides and a couple of early covers ('Don't Give Me No Lip, Child' and 'I'm Not Your Stepping Stone'), but with the grace to limit its post- Rotten material to two cuts ('My Way' and 'Silly Thing'), stopping respectably short of the Tenpole Tudor and Ronnie Biggs embarrassments. The band members' reminiscences are by turns amusing and revelatory - 'Bodies', for instance, their most near-the-knuckle lyric, is apparently the true story of a female fan who did indeed live in a tree when not incarcerated in a mental hospital. .

The free live CD, despite its thin sound - probably a relief given Sid's rudimentary bass-playing - is a bit of a stormer, with Steve Jones on top form, his razorish riffing scotching countless old aspersions on the band's live prowess. An exhilarating dash through nine numbers, it also demonstrates the sheer charismatic force of Lydon's fund of venomous nihilism, caught at its most astringent in the face of healthy Norwegian enthusiasm.

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