`Right from the opening, Anderson barely lets up for a second on the chiming guitars and pumping backbeat; whatever style he's trying out, it indicates his no-frills attitude'

Al Anderson Pay Before You Pump (Curb CURCD 034)
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The fake vinyl groove scratch tells its own story about Al Anderson's first solo album in more than 10 years - this is an idealistic analogue experience for the digital age, a brash and bruising blast of unadulterated hillbilly rock'n'roll which shows the whole rockin' country bandwagon up for the pampered, over-polished vehicle it surely is. Big Al's bodywork may be a trifle battered and rusty after two decades with the New Rhythm & Blues Quartet, but underneath his hood, the pistons can still pound out raw-boned R&B with the best.

Anderson is better known these days as an in-demand writer for country acts such as Hal Ketchum, Carlene Carter and The Mavericks, but his own versions are rather more bourbon-breathed than that suggests. Right from the opening chords of "No Place in History", which he co-wrote with John Hiatt, Pay Before You Pump barely lets up for a second on the chiming guitars and pumping backbeat, whatever style Anderson is trying out, from the Southern country-soul of "Change is Gonna do me Good" to the rock'n'roll history lesson of "It Came from the South".

The lascivious "Bang Bang Bang" is particularly effective, swaggering along with a country-funk strut, Anderson barking out the verses before cranking out the first one-note guitar solo heard for many a year - and a brilliantly sustained break it is, at that.

Such a turn indicates Anderson's no-frills attitude throughout the album; what he prizes most in music is the rare ability "to make dumb sound great", which he discerns in such as Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and Hank Williams. All these are present in spirit on what looks like being the best down- home rock'n'roll album of the year.

MANSUN

Attack of the Grey Lattern

Parlophone CD P CS 7387

Great things are expected of Mansun, EMI's tip for the future of Britpop - or, more accurately, for possible post-Britpop developments. And for about half of this debut album, leading up to the one-two punch of their hits "Wide Open Space" and "Stripper Vicar", they do indeed sound like world-beaters, with their cleverly plotted lyrics and sophisticated hooks.

From there on, though, a gradual process of attrition erodes such premature acclaim, as they lard perfectly acceptable little songs with excess musical baggage until they sound like the aural equivalent of a wedding cake. What starts out, in songs such as "Stripper Vicar", as sing-song pop in a Supergrass vein, has, by the concluding "Dark Mavis", become more like Supertramp.

It becomes increasingly clear that songwriter Paul Draper's attempt to impose some kind of conceptual continuity on the album, by means of recurrent characters or locations, simply masks the essential hollowness of the songs.

There is plenty of drama in the arrangements, certainly, but not once do they actually come close to moving you. But then, it's clear that, for Mansun, the listener is there primarily to admire, rather than be engaged in any deeper sense. The result is a song such as "Taxloss" (sample lyric: "We think you are stupid/ We give you money 'cos our assets are fluid"), a one-joke idea lent specious depth by a posh arrangement.

Time and again through Attack of the Grey Lantern, I'm reminded of 10cc and Tears For Fears, as song after song strays into pointlessly knotted, turgid territory in a vain attempt to impress - as if the artistic process lay in making things more complicated rather than more lucid. By the time "Dark Mavis" winds the album to its overdue conclusion with an everlasting fade of strings which self-consciously apes the piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life", all the more immediate pleasures of Mansun's poppier side have been cancelled out. Their ambition has brought them dangerously close to the abyss marked "progressive rock".

WARREN G

Take a Look Over Your Shoulder

Def Jam

The boastful hedonism, the tedious criminality, the fixation with filthy lucre - excuse me while I stifle a yawn, but haven't we been here before? Too many times before? Like his G-funk chum Snoop Doggy Dogg, Warren G scrapes by with diminished returns on this sophomore album, a severe let- down after the infectious panache of his debut.

Things start badly when Warren can barely work up the requisite distaste for the routine bitch-dissing of "Annie Mae"; thereafter, he can't seem to make up his mind exactly what he thinks. His useless adaptation of "I Shot the Sheriff" finds him claiming he's staying clear of folk who mess with guns, yet on the mealy-mouthed "What we Go Through", he is attempting to justify criminal tendencies with the lame excuse that "What my eyes see, my mind thinks my hand should hold". Ethical consistency, clearly, is an alien concept in Warren's world. Just as depressing, however, is the mushy consistency of his arrangements, which lean towards a sumptuous Isleys sound, but lack the vocal chops to carry the style off. Only on the stoned cruise of "Relax Your Mind" - his very own "Gin & Juice" - does Warren come close to capturing the laidback poise of his earlier work.

CYNDI LAUPER

Sisters of Avalon

Epic 485370 2

Like a kookier Kate Bush, Cyndi Lauper barges full-tilt here through the door marked "eclectic". Just take a look at what she's playing: bass recorder, omnichord, zither, slide dulcimer - and that's not taking into account the accordions, horns, harmonium and Japanese banjo which her small studio army wields alongside their vast battery of guitars, keyboards and samples.

It could be a recipe for disaster, but, ably assisted by Mark Saunders - whose co-production of Tricky's Maxinquaye presumably prepared him for just about anything - and co-writer Jan Pulsford, she carries it off with some style for the most part. The title-track, for instance, bowls in on a wave of massed African-style vocals that calls to mind the Mahotella Queens, uplifting and anthemic, before Cyndi effects a difficult middle- eight switch to somewhat rockier terrain. Elsewhere, "Ballad of Cleo & Joe" straddles different areas of the globe, applying snatches of what sounds like Balkan accordion to an uptempo blues narrative, while "Searching" carries her most vulnerable lyric on a trip-hop lope. Despite the ambitious diversity of the music, the most impressive thing about the album remains her voice, which brings a compelling emotionality to the most eccentric of arrangements.

GENE

Drawn to the Deep End

Polydor 537 104-2

Two years on from their debut album, Gene still sound like karaoke-popsters with a severely restricted repertoire. It's as if they've bloody-mindedly ignored every musical development - be it trip-hop or trance, jungle or grunge - that has happened since The Smiths broke up.

Like indie teds forever stranded on the cusp of adolescence, they carry on churning out songs for emotionally stunted twentysomethings, horrible self-pitying things such as "Speak to me Someone", a song as hopeless and maundering as its title. Not once does the tone alter - even Morrissey's records are more diverse than Drawn to the Deep End, for heaven's sake, and despite what he might hope, Martin Rossiter is no Morrissey. If he were, this album might be drily amusing, rather than just sad.

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