When the listening is easy

With the first hint of summer, Fiona Sturges offers a guide to its likely soundtracks
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The Independent Culture
AMERICAN ALT COUNTRY

As more boy bands bobbed to the surface in the New Year and the prophets of doom carped on about the death of pop music, American songsters Smog and Bonnie "Prince" Billy were quietly causing ripples with a dazzling pair of albums. Both acts are part of the new wave of alt country - a maverick hybrid of folk, country and rock - which hails from the US.

Smog's magnificently melancholy offering, Knock Knock, features abstruse lyrics and curious melodies, while Bonnie "Prince" Billy's rough-edged I See A Darkness rates as one of the most beguiling releases so far this year. Both bands will be making rare live appearances in Britain this summer - dates are yet to be confirmed.

Also exploiting this new genre are Wilco, who will be embarking on an extensive tour of their album Summerteeth in May.

ROCK REVIVALS

The Happy Mondays' mercurial mix of rock, dance and funk put their native Manchester on the map in the late Eighties, and almost single-handedly set the tone for the dance-crazed decade which followed. The band's stalwarts, Shaun Ryder and Mark Berry (better known as Bez), were finally persuaded to relive the bad old days after being presented with a monumental tax bill.

Though live shows by Eighties idols Culture Club and Duran Duran amounted to little more than cabaret acts last year, the Mondays' revival tour promises to be a distinctly more credible affair with recruits including The Farm's Ben Leach and Black Grape's Paul Wagstaff breathing new life into old tunes. A new single, "The Boys Are Back In Town", loosely based on the old Thin Lizzy hit and due to be released next month, is set to out-rock anything Fatboy Slim has to offer. Blondie, high on their comeback No 1 single, tour in May.

DANCE DEBUTS

Veteran crooner Tony Christie found himself back in the Top 10 for the first time in more than a quarter of a century earlier in the year when he teamed up with the Sheffield-based dance outfit, The All Seeing I. The band's long awaited debut album, expected in the summer, features lyrics by Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and beats from core members DJ Parrot, Dean Honer and Jason Buckel as well as an array guest vocalists yet to be announced.

You can expect great things from New York beatmaster Armand Van Helden, best known for his remix of Tori Amos's "Professional Widow". He has finally shaken off his celebrity DJ status with his new album 2Future4U, a dizzying collection of dance tunes that bring together salsa, techno, disco and funk.

While dance-floor giants Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers will be vying for supremacy with new albums, Basement Jaxx are a more interesting prospect with their self-appointed new genre, punk-garage.

The south London duo coined the term to describe their enticing blend of house, disco, ragga and Latin jazz which will be aired in May on their debut album Remedy. Look out for Roots Manuva too, whose deep basslines, crazy sampling and comedic rapping should lend the summer a more exotic flavour.

BIG NAMES

There will be plenty of old faces doing the rounds this summer, notably Supergrass, Cast, The Seahorses and Bentley Rhythm Ace, who will be plugging new albums on the festival circuit. But the best of the big names has to be Beck who, having provided us with an elegant "taster" last year with Mutations, will be releasing a new album. It is hard to predict what this self-proclaimed loser has in store for us. Suffice to say, expect the unexpected.

NEWCOMERS

Putting forward a strong case for a buoyant British music scene are The Beta Band with their strange harmonies and wonderfully distorted rhythms that defy categorisation. They are certainly one of the most inventive outfits to emerge in the past year and have run rings around music critics with their refusal to define their own sound. After three remarkable EPs, an album of similar quality is expected in the next few months.

There are also promising noises coming from the Icelandic quintet Bellatrix, advocates of folk-tinged indie, and psychedelic post-rockers Dark Star. Despite enticing debut releases, these two bands shine brightest in the live arena. Belgian rockers dEUS have also been causing a stir this spring with a caustic new album The Ideal Crash. They return to the UK in May for an extensive tour

OLD-TIMERS

After warming up swaths of soggy punters at last year's Glastonbury Festival, seasoned crooner Tony Bennett will be united with his new-found friends at the Albert Hall in May. Meanwhile, elderly rockers Aerosmith will be teaming up with Lenny Kravitz for a gig at Wembley Stadium in June, a one-off performance that promises to be the most gloriously tacky show of the summer.

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