This Week's Album Releases

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Wilco

Summerteeth

Reprise

IT'S ALREADY a vintage year for American roots-rock, with great records by Smog, Bonnie Prince Billy and Chuck E Weiss followed here by another classic from . Now slimmed to a quartet, the group sound more focused than on 1997's acclaimed Being There - though, thanks to the enlarged role played by multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, no less diverse in their approaches. If its predecessor owed a sizeable debt to the Stones of Exile On Main Street, this one seems more informed by The Beatles.

The songs are a series of meditations on Tweedy's emotions. But where Being There sought (and found) glorious reassurance of the redemptive power of rock'n'roll, Summerteeth reflects the more arduous side of band life - the transitory relationships, the brief flares of exhilaration, and the more lingering pangs of loneliness and self-doubt that creep in as musicians wait in departure lounges or gaze at their reflections in bus windows.

Most moving of all, it deals with the devastating effect such a peripatetic life can have on a family. Behind the winsome melodies and warm textures of these songs lurk painful details of a relationship eroded by separation, as its protagonists lose the habit of each other. It's a process which leaves the songwriter dizzied by conflicting moods, trying to find out where and why things went wrong, but always stuck in the same self-defeating loops: "What you once were isn't what you want to be any more"; "The first thing that you want will be the last thing that you need".

Ultimately, only his daughter seems to provide Tweedy with any real sense of certainty, and even then there's an unbearable poignancy to the past tense of lines like "We were a family my darlin'".

If that all seems a little too depressing, don't be misled: part of what makes special is their knack for balancing the harshest of sentiments and saddest of moods with uplifting melodies and arrangements, a style which brings depth and resonance to Summerteeth.

XTC

Apple Venus

(Cooking Vinyl)

IT'S BEEN almost seven years since XTC went on strike after the lovely Nonsuch, and the gap has not been good for them. They've always exhibited baroque pop tendencies, and it sounds as if every moment of the hiatus has been dedicated to embellishing these 11 songs, to their detriment. The opening track "River Of Orchids" serves notice of what to expect: pizzicato strings and staccato horns tiptoe around overlapping layers of vocals, the whole song growing cyclically.

Their thematic and stylistic touchstones remain the same - there are punning rhymes aplenty, and countless moments aiming for Beatle or Beach Boy bliss. "Green Man" continues their noble record of adapting English folk imagery without lapsing into fake antiquity or dreadlocked druidism - but the addition of flamenco handclaps to the McCartneyesque whimsy of "I'd Like That" exemplifies the way virtually all these tracks are taken an idea too far. The contrast with the album is instructive: though both bands draw on similar influences, sound more natural.

THE TIGER LIlLIES

Shockheaded Peter

NVC Arts/Warner Classics

THE NURSERY rhymes in Heinrich Hoffman's 19th-century classic Struwwelpeter have long been the most effective means of populating the nightmares of small children, and in The Tiger Lillies' acclaimed "junk opera", they get the treatment they deserve. These grisly lessons about the dangers of such childish habits as thumb sucking and picky eating are not treated as kiddy sing-alongs; both settings and deliverycome from darker nooks of the unconscious, sounding like Tom Waits material fronted by Tiny Tim or Dame Edna.

The breadth of styles the trio produce from their accordion, drums, and double-bass line-up ranges from the louche polka of "Johnny Head-In- Air" and the New Orleans second-line groove of "Fidgety Phil" to the Arabic- tinged accordion vamp of "The Story Of The Man That Went Out Shooting". But it's the relish with which singer Martyn Jacques' demented falsetto greets the decease of each disobedient child with a shrieked "Dead! Dead! Dead!" that gives the project its creepy quality.

VAN MORRISON

Back On Top

Pointblank

ANOTHER YEAR, another Van album, largely indistinguishable from its recent predecessors save for the contributions of ex-Pirate Mick Green, whose guitar work is a model of taste and subtlety.

Back On Top has all the usual Morrison tics and traits - the obscure R&B references (this time to former Brit-blues Playboy, Vince Taylor), the acute sensitivity to seasonal changes ("High Summer"), the occupational ruminations ("The Philosopher's Stone") and the grumblings about the kind of gnat-bite irritations one would hope he might rise above, such as "New Biography".

Sometimes, the effect is bizarre: in "Golden Autumn Day", Van's reverie is disturbed by muggers, leading him to lament, "Who would think this could happen... Among Blake's green and pleasant hills?", before musing upon the possibility of flogging the antagonists.

As ever, there are exquisite moments, particularly "In The Midnight", about how the "lonely, lonely music" he once heard has "been haunting me ever since". Long may it continue to do so.

KULA SHAKER

Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts

Columbia

"THIS IS the age of decay and hypocrisy," froths Crispian Mills in "S.O.S.", outlining a few of the age's apparently dread characteristics as "Blood transfusion, revolution, satellites on Mars". He could have chosen instead to decry the convolution and wild delusions of silly boys with guitars, but that might have required the kind of inward inspection that wasn't entirely focused on his own navel.

Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts is a truly horrible, half-baked affair, full of bogus portents of a "new world", lent a modicum of unwarranted self- assurance by Bob Ezrin's steely production.

The really sad thing is that Kula Shaker seem oblivious of the disjunction between their message (dog-eared Eastern hippy mysticism) and their medium (flatulent Western prog-rock, the most egoistic music ever devised). This will be good news for those still lamenting the decline of Yes - though even they might baulk at lines like "You're a wizard in a blizzard of mystical machine-guns". The rest of us will simply reflect that, truly, there's a seeker born every minute.

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