ROCK / Andy Gill on Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet, the Ice brothers (T and Cube) and Neil Young

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ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE BRODSKY QUARTET

The Juliet Letters

(Warner Bros, 9362-45180-2)

WHAT'S that awful sound? That's Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet, tumbling between two stools. 'We wanted to explore the under-used combination of voice and string quartet,' Costello explains in his liner-note, though perhaps the reason the combination of voice and string quartet is under-used is that it is a grating, unseemly sound which profits neither, a result much less than the sum of its parts. That's certainly the case here, where the quavery nasality of Costello's voice jars badly with the string timbres. The string quartet is music to let the imagination fly upon, and to have it pinioned by lyrics works against its effectiveness. It's no coincidence that the most affecting pieces here are 'Dead Letter' and 'Last Post', both instrumentals which speak louder of loss and the space between us than any of the other 20 imaginary letters on which the five performers have shared work as lyricists.

Inspired by a news report of the Italian academic who took it upon himself to answer letters addressed to Juliet Capulet, the album consists of a sequence of imagined communications of various types - chain letter ('This Offer Is Unrepeatable'), suicide note ('Dear Sweet Filthy World'), etc - set to music whose excessive formality reflects the stilted operetta-style delivery. It has to be said that the letters work better as texts than as songs: I for one would prefer to hear the words and the music sequentially, rather than simultaneously, as separate, related angles on the same subject.

Like virtually all conjunctions of rock and classical elements, The Juliet Letters ends up as a battle, with neither side winning outright but the classical form shading it as far as imposing its formal will: you're always aware that you're at a recital rather than a gig, and the mere fact that the mention of popular icons such as Presley, Liberace and Laurel & Hardy is accompanied by cheeky pizzicato rather than the refined glide of bowed strings speaks volumes about the South Bank Show / Arena cultural presumptions in operation here.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Music From The Motion Picture 'Trespass'

(Sire/Warner Bros. 7599-26978-2)

TRESPASS is what you get when a Hollywood studio has a movie called The Looters, starring the two most hardcore rappers in Los Angeles, ready to open when the LA riots happen. Not only is the release date put back, the title gets changed too, to something rather less inflammatory.

Not that the film's soundtrack is any the less violent or uncompromising than before, mind. Mixing the gangsta-, political-, and jazz-rap strands of the genre, it offers a reasonably accurate picture of the current state of rap, with some wild moodswings as, for instance, the Penthouse Players Clique's neanderthal 'I'm a Playa (Bitch)' is followed by Black Sheep's more articulate assertion of identity, 'On the Wall', which combines politicised lyrics with jazz samples from Jan Garbarek and Jack Bruce. Of the lesser- known acts, the best are AMG, whose 'Don't Be A 304' stylishly appropriates the police numerical code - for, presumably, a homicide victim - and WC And The Maad Circle, whose 'Quick Way Out' offers a slick gangsta morality tale with a sting in the tail, in best Ice-T manner.

The two Ices swap verses on the title-track, T's predatory snarl dovetailing well with the Cube's sullen resentment. Not that they have that much to complain about here, their respective production companies Rhyme Syndicate and Priority getting handy promotional slots for a couple more of their artists each besides their own contributions. This cosy divvying- up of space is just part of a wider deal-making business sense reflected in the thanks given to 'all the producers, artists, lawyers, publishers and managers who worked on this project'.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack 'Reservoir Dogs'

(MCA MCD10793)

PITY poor Gerry Rafferty. No sooner has he suffered the indignity of hearing his 'Baker Street' given a bland cover treatment, than his other greatest hit, Stealer's Wheel's 'Stuck in the Middle with You', gets used as the accompaniment to a scene of psychopathic horror in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs which irrevocably alters the audience's perception of the song, overlaying it with a thick layer of mordant black humour.

It's the most memorable scene of a film which plays its gory games against a backdrop of kitsch Seventies radio fodder, linked with deadpan introductions by American comic Steven Wright, as the DJ of an oldies show. His barely-awake tones are retained for this soundtrack and are just about the classiest thing about it, sandwiched as they are between the likes of the George Baker Selection, Harry Nilsson and Sandy Rogers. Even 'Magic Carpet Ride', which might have stirred things up a little, is present not in its original Steppenwolf form but in an ersatz version by a group called Bedlam.

It all fits in neatly with the Seventies kitsch revival (Denim, Pulp and all those Bjorn Again-style revivalists) with which it shares the quality of being all right for a night out, but deadly dull on record. As a general rule, one should beware of such nostalgists: anyone selling you a version of the Seventies that doesn't consist of street funk, Steely Dan, Little Feat and the Sex Pistols is short-changing you.

NEIL YOUNG

Lucky Thirteen

(Geffen GED24452)

A COMPILATION album of Neil's Geffen period? Wasn't that the fallow five years, 1982-7, so replete with dreadful albums that David Geffen was driven to consider suing him for delivering non- saleable product? You can see Dave's point, too: at the time, Neil was pinballing wildly from style to style, casting around for whatever it was he found with the Freedom album. The results were so uninspired that Geffen never bothered releasing some of them on CD.

For 1982's Trans, Neil heard Kraftwerk five years after everybody else and came up with his own version of the future which sounded more like Gary Numan. The album's incessant use of vocoder-vocals is almost acceptable for the couple of tracks used here, but unbearable at LP length. The next year he went to the opposite extreme and released an album of Luddite R & B so naff that the two tracks featured here, one a 'Willie and the Hand Jive' clone, are actually taken from contemporary live recordings. A couple of years later he upped career sticks again for Old Ways, an album of insipid country plodders, before unhinging completely with the awful Synclavier-rock LP, Landing On Water, and regaining a little of his former composure with the Crazy Horse reunion album, Life.

This gadfly inconstancy infuriated and alienated all but Young's most diehard fans, and the same effect is achieved in condensed fashion by Lucky Thirteen, which is rounded out by a couple of tracks from his subsequent Blue Note Cafe period. The compilation's subtitle, 'Excursions Into Alien Territory', is an after-the-fact cop-out, and an insult to all those who bought the albums in the first place, the poor saps.

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