This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
PETE TOWNSHEND The Lifehouse Eel Pie

NO FEWER than three of this week's high-profile album releases feature some form of fin-de-siecle millennial musing - none more perspicaciously than Pete Townshend, whose Lifehouse project, originally mooted in 1971 as the grandiose follow-up to Tommy, predicted not only the development of the Internet, but the attendant increase in alienation resulting from its widespread use.

Townshend foresaw a world in which unchecked pollution and social degeneration forced us all indoors, where we would communicate virtually over what he called "the grid", losing our ability to interact on any more personal level. So: top marks to the rock'n'roll Cassandra on that score. But when the idea baffled band, management and audience alike, the project was shelved indefinitely, and its material cannibalised for the albums Who's Next, The Who By Numbers and Who Are You?. Almost 30 years on, it finally appears in something like its intended form, as a six-CD set comprising two discs of a radio play set on the last day of the millennium, two discs of original demos, one disc of orchestrations, and one disc of The Lifehouse proper.

The play - in which a father searches for his daughter across Britain's industrial wasteland - bears some similarities to Chris Petit's film Radio On, not least the way in which the collective spirit of music offers respite from a dystopian society. In Townshend's case, the conflict between his growing spiritualism and his performing artist's ego led him to seek salvation in the ritual of performance, with the audience viewed as a congregation he could inspire through the fellow- feeling of songs like "Join Together" and "Let's See Action": a sort of three-chord communion of the collective soul.

Anticipating the digital transformation of music, he posited a performance at which each member of the audience's individual statistics would be combined in a computer and used to program a synthesiser - the result, he suggested hopefully, would be "One Note" reflecting the singularity underpinning our plurality. Despite this fanciful conclusion, The Lifehouse is undoubtedly the most coherent of Townshend's Big Ideas. It certainly inspired him to the finest songwriting of his career, with "Baba O'Riley", "Who Are You", "I Don't Know Myself" and the mighty "Won't Get Fooled Again" all profiting from restoration to their original context. Whether that context merits six CDs is, of course, another matter.

GEORGE MICHAEL

Songs From the Last Century Aegean/Virgin

SUNG WITH the kind of ingratiating croon usually reserved for Christmas albums, George Michael's covers of standards by Rodgers & Hart, Johnny Mercer, Sting and others have a fey, sickly quality which sometimes jars badly with the material. "Brother Can You Spare a Dime", for instance, has rarely sounded so tumescent with erotic promise, Michael aiming for pathos but belly-flopping spectacularly into bathos. The best tracks are the most modern - a Jazz Club revision of "Roxanne" tinted with cool blue horns, and a version of "Miss Sarajevo" whose lightness of touch reflects the singer's interest in Brazilian tropicalismo. Better by far, certainly, than his emetic renditions of "Wild is the Wind", "My Baby Just Cares for Me" and, particularly, "Secret Love", on which George gives it the full Judy Garland. Excruciating.

SONIC YOUTH

SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century Smells Like

SONIC YOUTH'S celebration of the dying century comprises their realisations of avant-garde works by composers such as John Cage, Christian Wolff, Yoko Ono and Steve Reich. A daunting prospect, given that several pieces derive from the blackboard-and-fingernail interface of the avant-garde. But there's pleasure to be had from James Tenney's "Having Never Written A Note For Percussion", in which bells and looming guitar noise sustain a recognisably uniform terrain, and Wolff's "Burdocks", in which a recurring figure is swapped between bass, vibes, viola, bells and guitar, while turntablist Christian Marclay adds staccato scratches. The shortest piece is Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano", three piercing screams from Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore's daughter Coco - fitting punishment, perhaps, for parents who have themselves tortured an eardrum or two in their time.

RAEKWON

Immobilarity

Loud/Epic

IF IT does seem as if every Wu-Tang Clan release sounds pretty much the same as all the others, it may be because that's actually not too far from the truth. Three tracks into Raekwon's Immobilarity, and you realise that "Casablanca" features the same spooky string sample as Genius/GZA's "Cold, Cold World". Which wouldn't be so bad, except that the previous track "Yae Yo" uses a tired, old loop of Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" behind a cocaine-economy rap that closely resembles Nas's (vastly superior) "Affirmative Action". Originality is not Raekwon's strongest suit, but then what is? His rap style is sullen and perfunctory, ignoring the finer subtleties of rhythm and inflection, and his convoluted street sermonising, while preferable to the generic bullying of his peers, lacks the compelling quality that can elevate hip-hop to art.

HANK WILLIAMS

Live at the Grand Ole Opry

Mercury

THERE'S A huge gulf between the Christmas cash-in concert albums of Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette, and this compilation of vintage Hank Williams radio performances. I think it's called "genius". For while the hayseed comedy of Minnie Pearl and blackface duo Jamup & Honey struggle to raise a smile a half-century later, Williams's material still cuts straight to the quick, as if recorded yesterday - an accurate index of the unflinching emotional honesty of songs such as "Why Don't You Love Me", "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)", and "Cold, Cold Heart". As a performer, too, Hank was peerless. His trademark nasal twang, slipping so lazily into a falsetto yodel, epitomises the notion of country music as "white man's blues", distilling joy from pain with an understated emotional alchemy worthy of T-Bone Walker.

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