RECORDS / The sounds of breaking bones: Andy Gill reviews the week's new album releases

Tom Waits - Bone Machine (Island CID 9993)

WHEEZING and clanking along at the side of modern music's streamlined digital vehicles, Tom Waits' latest boneshaker of an album features his first batch of all-new material since Frank's Wild Years, way back in 1987. Since then, this most individual of singers has pursued a variety of other interests, including a sustained push for Hollywood semi-success - a route satirised in this album's single, 'Goin' Out West', where the song's wannabe-star narrator boasts 'I got real scars / I got hair on my chest / I look good without a shirt'.

Evocatively titled, Bone Machine relies for its impact on the crash, scrape and thud of unusual percussion, Waits following up his interest in the 1930s 'monophonist' composer Harry Partch (who built his own instruments out of flotsam, jetsam and light bulbs) by using the sounds of found percussion, much of it suspended from a structure of his own devising known as the 'conundrum'. The resulting patina of percussive textures, recorded in the singer's shed, makes an appropriate backdrop for Waits' dank, clammy tales of death and damnation.

From the opening click-clack of sticks that ushers in 'The Earth Dies Screaming', past the sandwich-board prophet promising 'Jesus Gonna Be Here' and croaking that we're all going to wind up as 'Dirt in the Ground', to the judgement-day promise of 'All Stripped Down', there's a rich aroma of Old Testament-style fire and brimstone to Bone Machine; the song 'Black Wings', about some mythical outlaw figure, even begins with the lines 'Take an eye for an eye, Take a tooth for a tooth', Waits once again adapting the archaic phrases of public-domain verse to his own ends. In contrast to the usual pop culture treatment of death, as either a fulfilment of doomed outlaw fantasy or, latterly, a reason for charitable concern, Waits' take on death is as something ineffable and inevitable as the erosion of stones in a riverbed. Talking of which, Keith Richards pops up again for a rasp-on-rasp duet on the closing track 'That Feel', which has to be the bourbon-soaked bar-fly performance to end them all. Recommended for Nick Cave fans and the adventurous generally, Bone Machine is that rarity these days, an album with grain, whose natural surfaces reflect the weathering effect of listening. An album to live with, and to die for.

Suzanne Vega - 99.9XF (A&M 540 012-2)

SUZANNE Vega, too, has tried for a little added depth through odd percussive textures on her new album, with the drummer Jerry Marotta flailing away at all manner of devices. In the wake of the success of the DNA reworking of 'Tom's Diner', Vega's attempted more varied and modern settings than on the pallid Days of Open Hand, the producer, Mitchell Froom, co-opting such as Los Lobos' guitarist David Hidalgo and the former Costello bassist Bruce Thomas in an attempt to liven up her rather preppy sound.

It works up to a point, but even with Froom's more imaginative arrangements, she still sounds like a vicar's daughter who's strayed into a risque party and seems more comfortable in her old ways on the acoustic folkie parable 'Blood Sings' and the Cohen-esque simplicity of the closing 'Private Goes Public'. The songs, though, are her strongest since her debut LP, with 'Bad Wisdom' favouring the same kind of between-lines reading as the earlier 'Luka', though this time it seems to refer to incest rather than simple abuse, and 'As Girls Go' treating transvestism with cute irony - 'You make a really good girl / As girls go' - before Richard Thompson concludes the song with one of his less inspired solos.

But inventive as the backings may be, and notwithstanding the strength of her material, Vega's voice is a limiting factor: while in verse she seems able to adopt characters at will, when she sings there's only one voice at work, with only one angle of incidence in operation whatever the subject.

Brian Eno Nerve Net (Opal / Warner Bros 9362-45033-2)

COMPRISING parts of last year's unreleased My Squelchy Life mixed together with freshly recorded tracks, Nerve Net is something like a first cousin to Music for Films, consisting as it does of a series of atmospheric tone- poems with titles like 'Wire Shock', 'Pierre in Mist' and 'What Actually Happened?', with Eno demonstrating his expertise in ambiences of uncertainty, tentativeness and inquisitiveness. They're like little musical meditations on the creative process, always a consuming interest for this lovable pop boffin.

The first track, 'Fractal Zoom' - Eno always was a buzzword-conscious chap - is typical, a nervy, up-tempo piece in which swells of synthesiser sound crest and break over a rhythm matrix of tight funk drums and a synth playing something that sounds like a cricket break-dancing. It's a good evocation of the album's title, with an effect rather like being bounced around on a rhythm trampoline. This formula, vague as it is, is repeated through the album, resulting in pieces that are constantly on the verge of completion, sort of studies in becoming, at times resembling Weather Report, most notably on 'Juju Space Jazz'.

Lyrics have always been a problem with Eno - he insists on denying meaning, preferring to construct songs on the basis of assonance or nonsense - and in the track 'My Squelchy Life', he denudes his words of what he presumably views as prejudicially emotive interpretations by having them read by a series of different voices, line by line. It's an annoying intrusion on an otherwise splendid series of sound-pictures, but no big deal. Fittingly, the album ends with a slight, Satie-esque piano piece, 'Decentre', which acts as the mouthful of sorbet that cleanses the palate after the exotic textural invention that's gone before.

The Stranglers - Stranglers in the Night (Psycho WOLCD 1030)

FIFTEEN years on, The Stranglers finally do what they've been threatening to do since 'Grip': they've gone and made a bog-standard progressive rock album, complete with yawnsome guitar breaks and track titles like 'Heaven or Hell'. A song like 'Grand Canyon' could easily be by Foreigner or Extreme, Hugh Cornwell's vocal replacement, Paul Roberts, having little distinctive character save the kind of louche, declamatory croon that Tony Hadley brought to Spandau Ballet. Dave Greenfield, looking for all the world like one of Gong's pothead pixies these days, is restricted to background work for the most part, only reverting to that poppy Farfisa organ sound for 'Brainbox', which is the closest they get to the classic Stranglers sound. And as 'Southern Mountains' shows, they can't even ape The Doors as well as they used to.

(Photographs omitted)