'She's a proper Catholic girl, all right: when not holding up the spectre of death to terrify her congregation, she's full of little finger-wagging lectures about big-city depravity and drugs'

Albums

The Cranberries

To the Faithful Departed

ISLAND CID 524 234-2

' third album in a little over four years opens with the stern plod of dirge-guitar and that odd hiccuping vocal sound - rather like a breathless marathon runner on the verge of collapse - which dominated its predecessor No Need to Argue. Fading in, it's like a continuation of that album, a warning of impending doom and gloom couched in funereal keening.

As such, it's a fairly accurate representation of the contents of To the Faithful Departed, which is probably the most death-fixated record to appear since Joy Division's Closer. One song pays tribute to Dolores O'Riordan's dead grandad, "Joe". Two others, "War Child" and "Bosnia", are about the Balkan unrest. Yet another, "I'm Still Remembering", finds Dolores recalling her marriage day and counting her lucky stars, a mental route which, as you'd imagine, leads to musing over whether the great and the good - specifically, Kurt Cobain and "ever saintly" John F Kennedy - will be remembered. Who?

Most dubiously of all, "I Just Shot John Lennon" concludes with five gunshots, a tasteful little touch perfectly in keeping with a song that has nothing to add to the subject but the sentiment "what a sad and sickening night". Is there no death, one wonders, that Dolores isn't prepared to use as fuel for her muse? No, it appears, not even the prospect of her own; for even the album's lone shaft of light, the marginally positive "Free to Decide", is defined by the extremity of death, its chorus continuing "... and I'm not so suicidal after all". Is that really the only alternative?

She's a proper Catholic girl, all right: when not holding up the spectre of death to terrify her congregation, she's full of little finger-wagging lectures about such passe, tabloid concerns as big-city depravity ("Hollywood") and drugs (the single "Salvation" - message, "don't do it"). If you gave Mother Teresa or Princess Diana a howitzer and a barn-door issue, they'd be hard-pushed to hit it with quite the spectacular obviousness of . It's a shame, because musically the band are developing some neat little variations on their indie formula, notably the fairground organ and oompah rhythm of "Will You Remember?" and the country/ doowop cross of "When You're Gone", by default the most appealing track here. But there's only so much death a single album can withstand, and this one sails blithely across that Stygian line.

Bob Mould

Bob Mould

Creation CRECD 188

"I hate alternative rock," gripes Bob Mould on his return to solo mode after several successful years fronting Sugar. To which the obvious riposte is: well, stop playing it then, and maybe we'll all be a little more cheerful.

Though not quite as abysmally bleak as his last solo outing, Black Sheets of Rain, this eponymous effort is steeped in gloom, slashed and pierced with the shards of a disintegrated relationship. There are one or two nice moments - a harmonic overlay here, a guitar part there - but the trouble is that, to coin a phrase, Mould never sleeps: the self-lacerating anger and recrimination seeps out from split-up songs like "Next Time That You Leave", "Thumbtack" and "Hair Stew" to infect the entire album with its bitterness. So: Bob hates alternative rock. Bob hates himself. Bob hates pretty nearly everything.

In fact, the only time Bob sounds remotely happy is when he's playing Cassandra on "Deep Karma Canyon", cheerily spreading his personal gloom around a little. It's soon past, though, as he dives back into the stream of misery that leads ultimately to the suicide threat of "Roll Over and Die". These personal problems are unfortunate and distressing, certainly, but not necessarily any guarantee of artistic worth. Worse still, if pursued to such a nihilistic conclusion, there's every chance that Dolores O'Riordan will write a song about you - than which there can surely be no greater deterrent.

Paul Westerberg

Eventually

Reprise 9362-46176-2

Bob Mould should take a leaf or two out of fellow Minneapolitan Paul Westerberg's book on how to deal with hardship. The original pre- Slacker slacker and inventor of loser-rock, Westerberg has been through the mill a few times, likewise loved and lost a partner and a band, and seen off a damaging alcohol addiction to boot, but he's never lost the knack of disguising any resentment or self-pity with a catchy hook and a quirky couplet.

Eventually, his second solo offering since splitting up The Replacements, continues the infectious good work of 1993's 14 Songs: in a better world, at least 10 of these 12 tracks would be huge hit singles, and that world would indeed be a far better place for it. Like Noel Gallagher, Westerberg has an ear for a memorable chord progression, though he's rather better at disguising his sources, and immeasurably superior at distilling the brickbats and disappointments of life into singable sense. Take the gentle "Mammadaddydid", where 35 years of harsh life lessons bring a quiet resolve "... not to raise some mixed-up kid/ Just like my mom and daddy did": no self-serving song and dance about neglect or hardship, just a resolution to learn from the past.

While most of the album plays to his traditional strengths of simply- rendered pop-rock with a raunchy swagger, a few of the songs unveil new strategies, some more appropriate than others. The poignant melancholy of the Nilsson/ Jimmy Webb-flavoured "Good Day", for instance, fits Westerberg like a glove, unlike the cluttered jazz-funk rap of "Trumpet Clip", which may be satirical. At his best, though, it's tracks like "Ain't Got Me", with the songwriter proclaiming his steadfast uniqueness as "the last of a dying breed", for which he will be most loved. After all, the world loves a loser, and this is the man who dared to call his band's swansong album All Shook Down.

Hootie & the Blowfish

Fairweather Johnson

Atlantic 7567-82886-2

Fate can be a fickle mistress indeed: a platinum-talented songwriter like Paul Westerberg languishes largely unheard, while the characterless Hootie & the Blowfish achieve utterly baffling mega-sales. This dismal group's success is just another sign of the enormous disparity in taste between America and Europe: at home, their debut Cracked Rear View has sold an extraordinary 13 million copies, putting it up there with the Thrillers and the Rumours in the all-time best-sellers; in Europe, it's probably closer to 13 copies. That's one for Euro-taste, quite frankly, as the Hootie sound, a sort of thirtysomething alternative lite, represents nothing so much as a final straw being grasped by an entire generation: it sounds vaguely soulful, vaguely rocky, and vaguely rootsy, but nothing too specific. The same applies to Darius Rucker's singing: despite the flatted notes, elisions and sepia gruffness, it's an oddly bland, neutral voice, conveying the most indistinct of impressions. It could all have been designed to offend the smallest possible number of people but, ironically, its very inoffensiveness is actually deeply offensive, in a way that few Americans could ever hope to understand.

Mark Morrison

Return of the Mack

WEA 0630-14586-2

The title-track single has confirmed this Leicester lothario as the most convincing British equivalent to the likes of R Kelly and Montell Jordan: this, apparently, is how we do it. Which, it must be said, appears not that dissimilar to the way they do it: Morrison and his co-producer Phil Chill have constructed a fully working facsimile of the swingbeat and G-Funk styles that dominate the US R&B scene, right down to the importation of West Coast "Chronic" drug terminology and that eerie synthesiser whine on "Get High with Me".

The whole album, it goes without saying, is about sex, with a side-order of drugs, for purely aphrodisiac purposes, of course. "Horny", "Crazy" and "Moan and Groan" are fairly self-explanatory examples, Mark giving it some smooth over a deep bass groove, without getting too risque or hardcore about his intentions. Instead, the latter song features a cheeky invitation to open his drawers, a quaintly British touch which should leave transatlantic fans slightly perplexed: what has furniture got to do with lurrve? The single most significant difference between standard- issue G-Funk and this more parochial version, though, is the welcome decoupling of violence from the sex and drugs equation: he may have appropriated most of his style, sound and attitude from the West Coast, but Morrison sensibly leaves the Glocks and AK 47s behind. That's not a gun in his pocket, he really is pleased to see you.

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