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Jackie Leven

Fairy Tales for Hard Men

Cooking Vinyl Cook CD 115

is one of the more cruelly under-exposed artists working in Britain today - an irony, in that it's hard to think of many other songwriters who expose themselves quite as openly as Leven does in his work.

Steeped in Celtic mists, poetry and alcohol - the sleeve notes include a list of 17 pubs in which he found "moments of solace and reflection" - Leven grapples with the really hard stuff in his songs: how to be a man in an age of diminished manliness (and, some would say, diminished need for manliness). It's a search that has led him to the Iron John new- man movement, and to the work of poets such as Robert Bly and James Wright - for the second time, he sets one of the latter's works to music here, a meditation on the nobility of sacrifice. Casting himself as a kind of born-again pagan, Leven explains the album's title by claiming that, once upon a time, "in the days before the cross, Prozac and psychotherapy", fairytales were once similar to parables, verbal illustrations that might illuminate one's own situation.

Such is the intention here, in songs such as the fatalistic "Extremely Violent Man" and the album's opener "Boy Trapped in a Man". Set to a more ruminative, folkie variant on the Caledonian soul of Van Morrison, they depict individuals confused by love and life, like the son in "Sad Polish Song" who wonders of his absent father, "Was he poisoned in his trusting / when he was a child himself?", and communities caught in post- industrial bewilderment.

Despite the mostly gloomy subject matter, though, it's not a depressing album: running through the songs like a taut hawser of pride is Leven's majestic voice, one of the most noble instruments in popular music. Despite appearances, it's not simply a Scottish quest Leven has embarked upon, but one which seeks to find common threads of manhood running through other cultures. In this respect, the conclusion to the traditional "Old West African Song" is probably the most positive note struck on the entire album: "To be alive to hear this song is victory". In hard times, mere endurance is the hallmark of heroism.


How to Make Love Volume 1

Setanta SETCD 058

A collaboration between Anthony Reynolds, crooner with dreary miserabilists Jack, and Nick Currie, aka Momus, How To Make Love Volume 1 is a pretty woeful piece of work. The project's first failing is in relying mostly on Reynolds' songs rather than Currie's, so that instead of bone-dry, razor-sharp slices of social observation, we get wearily smug musings upon love, suicide and the human condition. Its second failing is in the immense self-regard of Reynolds' voice, which suggests that however much he may sing of love, he'll never love another with quite the ardour he directs at himself.

Stylistically, the record is a bargain-basement homage to Scott Walker, but without access to the commanding voice, the challenging material, the ambitious arrangements or the recording quality, which effectively leaves just the haughty manner.


The Strange Underworld of the Tall Poppies

Marina 44702

Dimitri from Paris


East West 0630 17832-2

Dimitri from Paris deals in easy-listening lounge-music grooves that offer a deeply kitsch version of Frenchness; it's the musical equivalent of an over-trimmed poodle, and just as trying. Favouring style over substance almost as an a priori requirement of the genre, Dimitri effects pale pastiches of Seventies TV detective-show themes, Latin American hip-swinger modes and similar innocuous trifles, but there's a constant temptation to reach for the skip button.

"Le Moogy Reggae" is as simple, stompy and stupid as Daft Punk, while "Un World Mysterieuse" and "Par Un Chemin Different" are slower and moodier, just aromatic whiffs of loops suggesting vague moods. Pleasant enough as far as they go, but there is a tight limit to the amusement value of things such as the stylophone. And when the humour fails, as it does constantly, there's little of substance to listen to here.