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Rock record reviews

Willie Nelson Spirit Island 524 242-2
The most enduring of American icons, Willie's weather-beaten, walnut-grained visage peers from the sleeve like some remnant of a pioneer past. Once shunned by country diehards for his pot-smoking and hippie sympathies, he has latterly become recognised as a guiding spirit of the genre, one whose fidelity to its traditions survives whatever transitory indignities might be inflicted upon it by the Billy Ray Cyruses of the world. Or so it seems. Now signed to Island, Willie's next album is reputedly a reggae record, and call me mad, but I'm quite excited by the prospect.

Meantime, Spirit is a more low-key work, an extended meditation upon mortality done in a dry, south-western style which MTV producers will recognise as Unplugged. "She Is Gone" and "Your Memory Won't Die in My Grave" deal explicitly with bereavement, while "I'm Not Trying to Forget You Anymore" shades over into a more general sense of loss, using the classic country strategy of the denial which belies the truth. In "Too Sick to Pray", the comforting plausibility of the melody lends a sense of calm acceptance to Willie's little chat with God: "... thank you my friend/ We'll be talking again/ If I'm not too sick to pray."

Slight instrumentals such as "Mariachi" feature plonky piano, pizzicato fiddle and acoustic guitar, and the stately waltz-time which predominates is a reminder of the strong Mexican influence seeping into Nelson's music from just across the border. Simple and uncluttered, the arrangements leave Nelson's voice free and uncrowded. A paragon of understatement, his is the most naked of voices, almost entirely free of artifice or emotional duplicity. In one of the more pleasing ironies of music, the absence of affectation renders his matter-of-fact delivery all the more affecting in these small slices of life. Sometimes, less really is more.

Various Artists

The Beautiful Game

RCA 74321 382082

"Internationale psyche - you dive, we no likee." This sentiment, the closest to the authentic Brit attitude towards foreign football, comes courtesy of Black Grape, Joe Strummer and Keith Allen's "England's Irie", the best of the new contributions to this Euro 96 Official Album cash- in (as opposed, presumably, to all the unofficial cash-ins?). Riddled with turntable scratches, scraps of ancient commentary and joke voices, it's a typical Grape rave-up, the only track here that acknowledges the boisterous melting-pot nature of modern football culture.

Most of the other new tracks are throwaways. Teenage Fanclub's "Kickabout" is little more than the phrase "Hey, everybody" run through a few key changes; Primal Scream's "The Big Man and the Scream Team Meet the Barmy Army Uptown" is a melodica dub with added footy noises; and The Boo Radleys' "Skywalker" is a sort of folk-grunge with a connection to football that seems tenuous at best. The general air of celebratory enthusiasm, meanwhile, is rudely shattered by Massive Attack, whose menacing "Eurochild Ninety 6" reflects more the sense of foreboding at the anticipated fan trouble.

Besides these more well-known contributors, there is an awful lot of sub-standard Endsleigh League Britpop here from the likes of The Wannadies and Northern Uproar, a hopeless rap chant from Collapsed Lung, and several tracks even less interesting than that. Small wonder that the compilers have chosen to eke proceedings out with old tracks from Blur, Pulp, Supergrass, Beautiful South, Stereo MCs and a remix of New Order's "World in Motion". Oasis, however, true exemplars of lad culture, are conspicuous by their absence. Smarter than they look, obviously.

Home Invasion presented an Ice T wearied by the constant pressure of being the most visible (and vilified) of rappers. Since then, the public tribulations of such as Snoop Doggy Dogg and 2Pac have stolen the spotlight, and it has become necessary for Ice to harden up a little to compete.

With the continued rise of the gangsta style he helped originate, Ice has delved back into the hustler milieu of his earliest albums, Rhyme Pays and Power, dishing out the violence and the vengeance in tightly wrought tales of criminal endeavour such as "The Lane" and "Where the Shit Goes Down", in which the pre-eminence of south-central LA villainy is asserted. As always, though, he is careful to stipulate the everyday downside of the lifestyle. Despite repeated denials of criminal associations, there is enough detail employed to make his vignettes ring horribly true. Rather less convincing, it must be said, is Ice's entry in the XXX-rated G-funk stakes, "How Does It Feel"; his voice is built for threats, not caresses.

The most noticeable change, however, is the complete absence of the pro- learning, socially conscious sermons that elevated albums such as Freedom of Speech and OG Original Gangster above the usual run of rap braggadocio. The only lecture here is "Rap Games Hijacked", a furious denunciation of how "a dope group from the hood/ Talkin' mad shit like they up to no good" can get financially bushwhacked by "some Jewish motherfucker that don't know shit" at a record label. The racist slur, like every move on the record, seems carefully measured rather than casual, a calculated insult designed primarily to satisfy the needs of black street politics. The solution, decides Ice, is for blacks to run their own businesses and employ other blacks wherever possible. "I know I got a white engineer," he concedes, "but he's gettin' minimum wage, so it's cool."

A companion to Ocean of Sound, David Toop's earlier ambient compilation, this double-disc set navigates largely uncharted vocal territory. Even those contributors usually known for their pronounced sense of rhythm - Sly Stone, John Lee Hooker, Dr John - are captured in slow, amorphous mood, while those renowned for extreme vocal experimentation - Tim Buckley, Yma Sumac, The Beach Boys - are at their most expansive.

With representatives from virtually every continent, the result is more a global survey of singing techniques than songs. In several cases, the songs seem to dissolve away, leaving just the ghost of an idea stretched across a singer's style. Certainly, The Beach Boys, Dr John and Captain Beefheart are below par on (respectively) "Wind Chimes", "Twilight Zone" and "White Jam", though Nico has rarely been better than on the glacial "Lawns of Dawns". It's diverse, but after a while, the relaxed tone leaves one desperate for a scream, a shout - anything more dramatic than this constant lull.

The global groove goes on. And on, and on ... There is a limit to just how fascinating sample-scraps of exotic cultures harnessed to ambient house loops can be, and Psychic Karaoke pushes that envelope perilously close. At its best, it has all the dervish verve of earlier TGU albums, but the better tracks are fewer. "Chariots" is a good opener, tugging you into its orbit before growing into something more euphoric. It has the kind of linear development lacking in, say, "Mouth Wedding", where the stacked vocal samples form a vertical arrangement whose appeal relies more on the mere fact of its tribal miscegenation.

"Bullet Train" shimmers attractively, with a fragrant whiff of Yellow Magic Orchestra to its melody, and Natasha Atlas is as graceful as ever on "Boss Tabla". But much of the rest verges on routine. Things are made somewhat worse on "Eyeway Souljah" and "Ancient Dreams of the Sky" by the rapping of the one known as TUUP: if dreams have one defining characteristic, it is that they are always interesting - why swathe the experience in cliches?


Ice T

VI: Return of the Real

Virgin RSYND 3

Transglobal Underground

Psychic Karaoke

Nation NR CD1067