This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture
R.E.M.

UP

THE DEPARTURE of the drummer Bill Berry would have dealt a fatal blow to most bands, but it says much about REM's outlook that the remaining trio have taken it as an opportunity to revel in the freedom from rhythmic imperatives. As a result, Up is REM's most experimental album, etched and shaded with a subtlety in short supply since Automatic for the People; it's also, more surprisingly, their most approachable album since that one, with sure-fire hits scattered among its tracks.

It doesn't start as if that were the case: "Airport Man" is a crepuscular smear of post-rock noise, with Michael Stipe mumbling impressions of airport life in his old Murmur voice. It seems deliberately introspective, almost solipsistic, but any misgivings are swiftly swept away by "Lotus", a cool funk groove that finds the singer asking "Didn't you notice? I ate the lotus." Like many of these songs, it's built on electric piano rather than guitar, which lends a more intimate, reflective feel and opens up a whole range of sonic vistas, with several tracks - "At My Most Beautiful" and "Parakeet", most obviously - displaying a pronounced Brian Wilson influence. More surprising is the terse John Cale-style organ loop, which makes the surging "Hope" sound like The Velvet Underground doing Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne"; or the smooth, vibes-tinged"Suspicion", as close as they'll get to Roxy Music without donning tuxedos.

Up features Michael Stipe's most direct, emotionally honest songs for some time, a series of narratives about characters at significant junctures in their lives: the "Sad Professor" who suddenly sees himself as others see him; the defendant wondering how to present himself to the jury in "Diminished"; the newly-detoxed addict of "The Apologist" boring everybody with his piety. They leave an indelible sense of epiphany, culminating in the redemptive sacrifice of "Falls to Climb", where "for each and every gathering/a scapegoat falls to climb". Clear-eyed, considered and optimistic, Up is a masterpiece of taste, texture, and emotional topography.

ROBBIE WILLIAMS

I've Been Expecting You

Chrysalis

ONLY A CHURL would deny Robbie Williams his resurgent success after those years in boy-band harness, trotting in the dressage of pre-teen desire that was Take That. I've Been Expecting You may be little more than a supercharged, high-octane version of Life Thru A Lens, but there's a swagger and self-belief about it which stands in stark contrast to the majority of British pop in the aftermath of Britpop. You can hear it in the bold, confident use of that John Barry sample in "Millennium", and it's thrust into revealing relief on "No Regrets", in which Williams's sheer exuberance all but swamps the presence of his two wimpier pop chums, the Neils Tennant and Hannon.

"I'm trying to grow up," he claims on the opening track, "Strong", but that's not strictly true - nor, perhaps, even particularly desirable in a performer like Williams. But he should really steer clear of spiteful rubbish such as "Karma Killer": only the young Bob Dylan could cut that cloth close enough to pinch and still look cool.

DRU HILL

Enter The Dru

Island

WITH SIX consecutive US number ones, Dru Hill are the current harmony- soul kings, worthy successors to the likes of Boyz II Men and Jodeci. Enter The Dru is state-of-the-art group singing, perhaps not as demonstratively technical as, say, Take 6, but more than compensating for that with the emotional power the quartet bring to the material.

They have a more convincing soul presence than any of the above, a vocal blend which doesn't just settle for the soft option, but barks and breaks as readily as the Isley Brothers. There are echoes of other giants, too: the honeyed lubriciousness of Marvin Gaye in "How Deep Is Your Love" and "I'm Wondering", the gospel burn of Bobby Womack in "This Is What We Do".

And though the credits boast the usual soul suspects - the Babyfaces and Darryl Simmons - on a few tracks, the group's own productions ensure a higher-than-usual level of individuality, with backings which don't baulk at leaving just an acoustic guitar, bass and bubbling water carrying the break in "I'm Wondering".

BRYAN ADAMS

On A Day Like Today

A&M/Mercury

DESPITE THE presence of Sporty Spice on one track, there's little to surprise fans here. He's the most dependable of rockers, and tracks such as the obvious single-to-be "Cloud Number Nine" and "Before The Night Is Over" are archetypically Adams-anthemic, faintly familiar in all respects, from the blue-collar burliness of the riffs, right down to the title cliches. If he hasn't already released a song called "Before The Night Is Over", it can only have been an oversight.

There's an introspective slant to Adams's style which sets him apart from most stadium rockers; even rousing tracks such as "How Do Ya Feel Tonight" and "C'mon C'mon C'mon" rock out with reluctance, as if dogged by doubt.

This is part of his appeal: despite the sophistication of the production, there's something winningly self-effacing about Adams's attitude, a streak of vulnerability which tempers the macho grunt of the music, so that a song such as "I'm A Liar" reveals the shame beneath the boast - an odd manoeuvre which few could carry off with such conviction.

TALVIN SINGH

OK

Island

TALVIN SINGH'S credits read like theproverbial Who's Who of futuristic music: Sun Ra, Bjork, Future Sound of London... Small wonder that his solo debut, recorded in New York, Madras, Okinawa and Brick Lane, should prove so vigorous.

Singh is a percussionist expanding into wider sonic territory, setting out his stall on the opening "Traveller", an 11-minute journey which encompasses skittering drum'n'bass rhythms, jazz vocals, mellow flutes and drones, and the austerely dramatic strings of the Madrid Philharmonic. It's anything but dance music - though Singh makes up for that elsewhere with busy, intricate rhythms which exhibit a pronounced Indian influence, but ultimately owe little allegiance to generic or ethnic specifics.

It's what he puts over the beats that makes the difference: a soundscape of shifting tones and noises which recalls the ambient-jazz recordings of Bill Laswell and even, when Byron Wallace adds restrained smudges of trumpet to "Mombasstic", the lambent shimmer of the later Miles Davis.

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