ROCK / Records: In a star-spangled manner: Andy Gill reviews this week's new releases

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The Independent Culture

Some Gave All

(Mercury 510 635-2)

WHY BILLY Ray Cyrus, of all people? This is the question that has baffled country music veterans across America, as this unknown and seemingly talent-impaired singer has improbably bust apart both singles and album charts. The Elvis comparisons have been stressed - all this guff about how Billy Ray's just a nice polite country boy who always says 'Sir' and 'Ma'am', and how his gently rocking hillbilly style makes a similar synthesis of white and black musics as the King's - but it says much about the current preoccupations of country music that this supposedly 'authentic' genre should spawn a success so obviously driven by superficialities.

Musically, the album skirts the rocking side of country, but it rocks in an archaic fashion, as if the past 20 years' musical developments were just an annoying distraction. The closest Cyrus gets to 'now' are the ersatz Springsteen inflections with which he attempts to add an edge of emotion to otherwise bland songs. His cover version of 'These Boots Are Made For Walking' is the dead giveaway, about as tough and leathery as a James Last arrangement.

Lyrically, Cyrus's songs display an occasional shaft of wit in lines like 'I'm so miserable without you, it's almost like you're here', but the concluding 'Some Gave All' is the blot that swamps his copybook. A 'tribute' to Vietnam veterans which continues the pretence that domestic liberties in the US were somehow dependent on the war, it's shamelessly, bile-risingly patriotic - an example of that scoundrel's refuge to which country songwriters resort with such alacrity: 'All gave some / Some gave all / Some stood true for the red white and blue / And some had to fall.' And somewhere in that sick-bag of a song, perhaps, is the real reason why America has suddenly taken Cyrus to its heart.


The Missing Years

(This Way Up 512 774-2)

IT'S MORE than two decades since John Prine first recorded the classic 'Sam Stone', whose chorus line 'There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all our money goes . . .' put the true plight of the Vietnam veteran into the kind of perspective that would probably baffle Billy Ray Cyrus.

Since then, Prine's career has vacillated with the changing fortunes of folk music, and he's spent the last six years without a new studio album, living a hand-to-mouth existence on the folk club circuit. But suddenly, with no warning, he's as popular as ever: The Missing Years has already sold an impressive 300,000 copies in America, due in part, one suspects, to the presence of guests like Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty.

Prine's authorial voice is one of calm stoicism, leavened with the slightest bitter tangs of irony. He specialises in pointed juxtapositions, in the tangential final verse which casts an alternative interpretation on all that preceded. It's especially effective in 'Picture Show', where a gentle musing upon the nature of celebrity and representation is suddenly petrified by the concluding image of a Native American Indian, stoic in the face of tourists stealing his soul with their cameras. Not all the album reaches that standard, but it's an impressive return overall, done to a crisp turn by Heartbreaker Howie Epstein's well- tailored production.


Rough & Ready - Volume 1

(Epic 471442 2)

CONTINUING ITS desperate, doomed quest to bring ragga to the masses, Epic offers another album by Shabba Ranks, on the back of a single hoisted into a precariously low chart placing as much by sheer force of will as by any widespread public clamour for his monotonous burbling.

So far, Ranks has only managed notable singles success in duets with such as Scritti Politti, which may explain why the first two tracks on the album are also collaborations with singers. Personally, I believe the only way this least decipherable of rappers might cross over to a wider audience would be with the provision of subtitled lyric sheets, and somehow I doubt that Ranks's opinions on tracks like 'Wicked In Bed' and 'Hard And Stiff' will prove easily publishable. At least with Max Romeo's pioneering reggae-sex track of the Sixties, 'Wet Dream', there was the vague possibility of double entendre, but with Ranks one gets the distinct impression that there's rather less going on here than meets the eye.


Plains Music

(Kaz CD 902)

PLAINS MUSIC contains pieces based on Native American Indian chants, done by an international blend of musicians in a gentle jazz mode which switches between rhythmic South African bustle and more discreet chamber-jazz.

The emphasis, claims Manfred Mann in his sleevenote, is on the simplicity of the pieces, with as few notes as possible used; the effect is of calm, unhurried unfolding, verging in places on New Age muzak.

'Laguna' (a corn-grinding song) is one of the more successful tracks, with the delicate tracery of Barbara Thompson's sax figures set against Mann's big, resonant piano chords and Peter Sklair's fretless bass sound; also of note is 'Hunting Bow', built around a rhythm figure played on the title instrument, a struck-string sound similar to the Brazilian berimbau.



(Rough Trade/Our Choice RTD 195- 1266-2)

DIE KRUPPS were at one time an innovative German band whose 1981 album Stahlwerksinfonie (Steelworks Symphony) constituted one of the foundations of the whole Test Department / Einsturzende Neubauten style of metal-banging.

Re-formed for this album, they've fashioned a raging blend of heavy metal guitars and stern techno beats which provides the missing link between Nitzer Ebb, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. Fans of the above-mentioned will find much to delight them on I, which traverses a world of discipline and doppelgangers, steel and power, and viruses both medical and digital, on the back of a pounding steamhammer rhythm and screaming guitar noise.

(Photograph omitted)