RECORDS; NEW RELEASES

Sting: Mercury Falling (A&M, CD/LP/tape). This is the sound of a master craftsman at work. Sting may be perceived as too solemn and rain- foresty to be fashionable, and he's unlikely to be name-checked by Oasis, but his invention leaves his contemporary, Paul Weller, far behind. The overall air of these 11 Summoner's Tales is freshly rural, evoking woollen waistcoats and steam-breathed horses crunching through dewy leaves. The smart lyrics are both folky and precisely contemporary, the enchanting music both medieval hey-nonny-noing and nourishing Van Morrison-style r'n'b. Along the way Sting injects a country twang, a twist of French jazz, and some drummer-maddening time signatures. Without putting a foot wrong, he strolls through the lot with elegant ease. And he keeps Pato Banton locked out of the studio. Nicholas Barber

Pulp: Countdown (Nectar, 2CDs/LP/tape). Great Rock Bores of Our Time: "Of course, the thing about Pulp is that Jarvis formed the band at school 18 years ago, and they've been making records since '82..." But does anyone actually know what those records sound like? Probably not, Pulp's former indie label have surmised, and they've cunningly put together a compilation of tracks from the four albums the group made prior to their major label debut in 1994. It's interesting, but the trouble is that Pulp are so excellent now that to hear the inferior proto-Pulp is painful. They started off as being not as good as the Smiths and progressed until they weren't as good as the Pet Shop Boys. Heaven knows Jarvis was miserable then. He sings with a flat melodramatic warble and he seems to have left his sense of humour in a field just outside Hampshire. The value of 97 minutes of music for just pounds 8.99 can't be faulted, but I'd still advise spending your money on a ticket to see them live. NB

Underworld: Second Toughest in the Infants (Junior Boys Own, CD/LP/tape). Like its predecessor, 1993's impeccably sinister Dubnobasswithmyheadman, the new album from this shadowy Essex trio takes a bit of getting used to. Then it moves into your house and the next thing you know all your possessions are out on the pavement. Karl Hyde, Rick Smith and Darren Emerson are very strange people: their sonic envelope is made of crepe paper and their minds are full of darkness. But it's a very cerebral and seductive kind of darkness. Stream-of-consciousness mindwarps don't come much more warped than "Pearl's Girl"; and "Blueski" is the most hypnotic three-minute instrumental of the year so far. Ben Thompson

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