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Various Artists

Dead Man Walking - music from and inspired by the motion picture

Columbia COL 483534 2

'The result of this union is a dozen meditations on mortality and the quality of mercy'

Dead Man Walking is the most direct evidence so far of the liberal fightback occurring in American popular culture. A film about virtue and self-sacrifice - as embodied in the true life story of Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who works with the death-row inmates of a Louisiana penitentiary - it stands at odds with the violent glamour of most Hollywood product. The director, liberal golden boy Tim Robbins, sent rough cuts of his film to songwriters he admired, along with newspaper clippings about Sister Prejean. This album is the result: a dozen meditations upon mortality and the quality of mercy.

Not unexpectedly, folk balladeers predominate. Bruce Springsteen continues the mood of his recent Ghost of Tom Joad album with "Dead Man Walkin' ", a condemned man's reflection on his imminent fate: "Between our dreams and actions lies this world," he muses. Most of the contributors likewise adopt the murderer's viewpoint, the subtext often being: there but for the grace of God...

Remorse and retribution figure prominently throughout the album - with Mary-Chapin Carpenter noting that "God forgives, somehow - we have yet to learn the same" - though some may feel the focus on the criminal limits the project's view of its subject. Only Steve Earle broadens the issue with a traumatised death-row warder in "Ellis Unit One" dreaming the electric chair's straps are across his own chest.

Dead Man Walking is a though-provoking project, with its heart firmly on its sleeve. The only serious criticism to be made is that the only non-white participant comes from Pakistan, which rather undercuts its claims to speak for the imprisoned of America - a group still drawn predominantly from the black community.

Willy DeVille

Loup Garou

eastwest 0630-12456-2

Twelve albums to date? Somebody's been lenient with Willy DeVille's career, and just as well, judging by the commendable Loup Garou. The sleeve photos show Willy's kept his cheekbones in good order, while his voice has, if anything, improved with the husky patina of age. Loup Garou builds on his trademark sub-Springsteen style, adding a few Louisiana voodoo touches where appropriate, particularly on the title-track, and blending in other, more unusual textures, like the fairground sound of the Optigon keyboard on "Still (I Love You Still)". He comes close to poignancy-overload on "Angels Don't Lie", where wistful uillean pipes and penny-whistle are combined with the haunting string-pad sound from "Streets of Philadelphia", but there's enough skill and sensitivity elsewhere to render this a more than capable comeback.

St Etienne Daho

Reserection

Virgin DINSD 150Collaborations born out of "mutual respect" between artists are fine, though there is a danger that, as here, the mutuality may prove too limiting. Or, to put it another way: how entertaining is the sound of artists stroking each others' egos?

The artists in question here are St Etienne and Etienne Daho, a French pop star whose rumoured death provides the rationale for the cheerfully tasteless cover photo. The reasons for their collaboration are, perhaps, just as tasteless - St Etienne dealing in the kind of insubstantial pop artifice that traditionally has been French music's main contribution to international pop culture. Daho - allegedly some kind of French Lou Reed - has tried to cross the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between Anglo- American pop and its Gallic equivalent before, though his previous work with Al Green, Chris Isaak, Jimmy Somerville and William Orbit has not travelled well.

His moody murmurs dominate three of the four songs, but only the rap "Jungle Pulse" offers any progression beyond romantic pop - rap being one of the few genres that the French have grasped with any real command. But still no good, alas.

Victoria Williams

This Moment in Toronto with the Loose Band

Mammoth/Atlantic 7567-92642-2Sooner or later, Victoria Williams is going to have to write a new song, and preferably one that doesn't mention dogs. This live album reprises most of her back catalogue's notable moments - "Summer of Drugs", "TC", "Frying Pan", "Harry Went to Heaven", etc - with few innovations as regards arrangements. It's still pretty much a case of flimsy whimsy with fiddles and guitars - fine for a song or two but excruciating at album length. The limpid backings betray the musicians' eggshell-treading approach to her songs, which as a result tend to meander away to no great effect. Only "Crazy Mary" makes much of an impression: for once, the setting seems to reflect the subject. The handful of standards which make up the rest of the album offer no great relief, either. Her rendition of "Imagination" takes those Rickie Lee Jones vocal mannerisms and drags them beyond cool to some place far more twee.

The Jazzhole

Bluemoon 7567-92586-2The Jazzhole - terrible name - is an engaging soul- jazz collective based around the trio of guitarist John Pondel, keyboardist Warren Rosenstein and singer Marlon Saunders, who blend jazz breaks with slinky funk rhythms, creamy vocals and the occasional rap. ...and the feeling goes round, their second album, is presented as a radio programme, complete with idents and interviews - which may be a mistake, as their articulacy is no greater in this respect than any of their peers.

Still, the music is just fine, particularly when Saunders's jazzy vocals are augmented by rappers Ahmad Best and KCB. "Do You See What I See?" is the standout track, employing a sensual groove behind a rap hankering after the balmier soul culture of the Seventies; as proof, they go on to offer a version of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star" that's every bit as sleek as the original. Should sound great coming from a Golf GTi on the A13.

Yoko Ono / IMA

Rising

Capitol CDP 8358172Having left her indelible impression on her late husband's work - for better or worse - who would deny Yoko Ono the opportunity to do likewise with her son's? IMA is Sean Ono Lennon's band, and it was apparently at Sean's request that they became involved with this album.

Since music is a blend of character and technique, it's a fitting combination: Yoko has character aplenty but minimal musical technique, while IMA, on this showing, can play their instruments but have no discernible musical character. Even producing songs dealing with war, death or the dislocation of life, they offer no equivalent drama in their music, which tacks uneasily between drab thrash-rock and the limpest funk imaginable.

Yoko, for her part, ponders several unremarkable questions - "Where Do We Go From Here", indeed - and on some tracks doesn't even bother with that, settling instead on lengthy bouts of the wordless caterwauling for which she is justly notorious. Which can be fun for a while, but rarely for 14 minutes, as on "Rising" itself. It all sounds dated, the music of people baffled by modern music; so it's fitting, I suppose, that it should conclude with "Revelations", a series of pronouncements every bit as facile as the child-of-the-universe dribblings of that least illuminating of airhead hippy poems "The Desiderata".

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