Come On Home
Virgin CDVUS 124
' 1994 comeback album Some Change was one of the best-kept secrets of that year, a mature and thoughtful slice of modern R&B which didn't try to disguise its intentions with guest celebrities or instrumental grandstanding. With Come On Home, the white soulster applies the same methods in a slightly different direction, delving back into his Texas blues roots to come up with an album which just oozes class.
Mingling 10 old favourites with four self-penned originals, the album offers a compelling illustration of the power and diversity of late Fifties/ early Sixties blues, opening with Earl King's infectious "It All Went Down the Drain" and proceeding through representative cuts of Bobby "Blue" Bland's deep-soul style, Jimmy Reed's slouching slacker-blues, Fats Domino's New Orleans sway and T-Bone Walker's fluid jump-blues. Particularly effective are Scaggs' readings of Isaac Hayes/ David Porter's slow-burning "Your Good Thing (Is About To End)" (a 1969 hit for Lou Rawls) and his beautifully measured version of Ketty Lester's "Love Letters", while his understated guitar work on his own "I've Got Your Love" is a model of taste and restraint in a field prey to all kinds of unseemly excess.
Much of the album's success is due to its impeccable session crew, which blends reliable veterans - Jim Keltner and Ricky Fataar on drums, "Hutch" Hutchinson and "Ready" Freddie Washington on bass, Fred Tackett and Scaggs on guitars - with a few inspired choices, such as getting Al Green's producer Willie Mitchell to do some of the horn arrangements. It all adds up to probably the best blues album of the last few years, and certainly the only one to significantly challenge the genre's tired reputation as a vehicle for tawdry guitar pyrotechnics.
The final crowning touch is the splendid sleeve design, a witty inversion of the traditional situation regarding blues albums of the Fifties, when record companies would rather use anything - most often a white woman in soft-focus reverie - than scare potential purchasers by featuring the black artists themselves. Here, Scaggs himself is royally upstaged by a couple of black street kids giving the camera loads of attitude, while the shiny fins of a Cadillac tempt one inexorably towards the disc. Like the album itself, it has a classic touch.
Hands On HORCD 1001
Some musicians' work is so enduring it that becomes more an archetype than a style, with clear echoes of it resounding down the years. Take Marvin Gaye - barely a year passes without another singer trying on his mantle for size. Last year's New Marvin was the omni-talented Lewis Taylor; this year, UK soulster Geoffrey Williams is the candidate, and making a more than passably decent fist of the job with The Drop.
Using US mixing team The Butcher Brothers (aka Joe and Phil Nicolo, better known for their work with rappers such as Cypress Hill and Nas), Williams has crafted a luxurious facsimile of Gaye's romantic-soul style, most effectively on the opener "Sex Life". The chorus line "My sex life needs a little action" may be slightly less enticing than "Sexual Healing", but it is emanating from the same boudoir.
Similarly silver-tongued on tracks such as "Lovers Talk" and "I Guess I Will Always Love You", Williams sticks closely to the smooth soul sound throughout, only adding a few drum'n'bass flourishes to pep up the uptown falsetto soul of "Drive".
Compared to most American soul singers, though, Williams has an engagingly idiosyncratic approach, unafraid of revealing flaws or vulnerabilities that might compromise his status as lover. "You say it's not very attractive being my mother," he admits in "Tell Me Something Good" is a line that will surely strike both sexes with the ring of truth, but it's one that you'd never hear from an American lurrrve-man.
(Mute CD STUMM 148)
Depeche Mode's comeback album - in singer Dave Gahan's case, a comeback from the dead, by all accounts - holds few surprises, and more worryingly, few tracks to match the high quality of their last two studio albums - Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion. Even the halfway decent songs, such as the single "It's No Good", seem like Mode-by-numbers, and despite the presence of Tim (Bomb The Bass) Simenon as producer, the rhythms rarely rise above the sinister technoplod of the opening "Barrel of a Gun".
This is the first of several songs which, albeit written by Martin Gore, seem designed to be read in terms of Gahan's highly publicised drug addiction. On "Sister of Night", for instance, he sings of trembling through sleepless nights and seeking succour, while "Home" finds him giving thanks for "arriving at somewhere that feels like home". His voice is, perhaps understandably, rougher and more lived-in than before, but not unpleasantly so. Of greater cause for concern, however, is the indistinct, half-formed nature of some of Gore's melodies.
The instrumental "Jazz Thieves" offers a little respite from the quotidian run of things, with marimba tones clunking enigmatically against faint synthesiser rushes and a three-note double-bass loop. "The Bottom Line", too, promises more, featuring as it does the intriguing presence of both Can's drummer Jaki Liebezeit and pedal steel guitarist B J Cole; but these are all too brief distractions. CAST
Mother Nature Calls
Polydor CAST 2
It used to be the case that a musician's prodigious intake of marijuana guaranteed music and lyrics that were at least inventive, if not always completely coherent. That is clearly no longer the case, judging by Cast's limp sophomore effort, another victim of "that difficult second album" syndrome.
Over the past couple of years, Cast songwriter John Power has made much of his partiality to powerful wacky-baccy, but unfortunately, when it comes to the matters that matter - specifically, music - he has not made much out of it that really matters. Where their debut album All Change jangled brightly in the first rays of Britpop, this one seems sluggish and dull by comparison. There are no tunes here quite as immediate and infectious as "Alright" or "Walk Away".
Elsewhere, producer John Leckie tries to disguise the general lack of inspiration with the addition of perfunctory psychedelic effects - the backwards guitar solo on "She Shines", the ticking clocks and varispeed tricks on "The Mad Hatter" - but without any notable success. Songs such as "Mirror Me" and the single "Free Me" are drab, meat-and-spuds rockers with little to recommend them, while the lyrics throughout are barely more than cliches about looking for peace of mind, walking a crooked mile, etc. Far from unearthing revelatory insights, herbe superbe seems only to have dulled Power's imagination, tarnishing the shiny promise of their earlier work.
South Delta Space Age
Antilles 533 965-2
As supergroup line-ups go, Third Rail's promises all manner of richly divergent excesses. Harmolodic funk-jazz guitarist James Blood Ulmer, once of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, is the frontman here, with P-Funker Bernie Worrell on organ, musical polymath Bill Laswell on bass and former Meters drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste keeping the grooves sharp and spartan throughout.
It's not quite as intriguing, nor as good, as that suggests, but it's not bad at all. The opener, "Dusted", is typical - a laidback creep riding the inimitable hi-hat pattern familiar from dozens of Meters tracks, while Ulmer wrings out terse guitar phrases and croaks a lyric borrowed from proto-gangsta-rapper Schooly D Elsewhere. Meantime, "Itchin'" bears more than a passing resemblance to one of John Lee Hooker's blues moans. Ulmer tries out a little impromptu rhyming on the theme of blasphemy and social decay on "Lord Thank You", but it's his unorthodox chord structures and abrupt guitar style that ultimately provide most of the interest.
A few tracks linger too long in the twilight zone of jazz-funk jamming, but there is enough going on generally to keep most fans of either funk or jazz satisfied.