ALBUMS / Elton John 2, Frank Sinatra 0: Giles Smith on Elton John, Lisa Stansfield, a festive Gloria Estefan and Boyz II Men, and a reunited Velvet Underground

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ELTON JOHN

Duets

Rocket 518 478-2

WHEN Frank Sinatra recorded his album of duets recently, he got through the entire experience without actually meeting any of his 'guests'. They all added their parts later, in his absence. In an eerie technological development, some of the participants didn't even have to pitch up at the studio, but instead rang in down digital phone lines. And Frank was spared from having to glad-hand it with scruffs like Bono, which must have been a relief.

Less squeamish, Elton John has chosen to record his duets (or at least, 14 of the 15) in the company of the people he is singing with. Call him old-fashioned, but he gets a brighter, livelier bunch of recordings for his troubles. Duets feels distinctly like an album where musicians are working with one another, rather than corresponding by fax. It is also the most cheering album John has produced in years.

We kick off with kd lang - as good a place to start as any these days - who mostly sits back and coaxes along an energetic performance from John on Womack & Womack's 'Teardrops'. Arranged around a big drum kit, it's a good deal more glassy than the original, which had a wonderfully muffled clout to it. But Elt's version swings just as hard and when it reaches the bridge, a stack of harmonies from lang breaks the number wide open.

The songs which follow divide pop standards and new compositions between a guest-list which is almost wilfully eclectic (from PM Dawn to Chris Rea, from RuPaul to Don Henley, from Leonard Cohen to Little Richard) and appears to be motivated more by John's musical interests than a desire to make commercial killings: Elton John with Nik Kershaw is, after all, a banker in no one's books.

If you peer at the small-print on the sleeve, you'll see that big-wigs are doing some of the less glamourous jobs, too. The duet with Gladys Knight is written produced and performed by Stevie Wonder; the organist behind Bonnie Raitt on 'Love Letters' is Billy Preston; Chris Difford of Squeeze chips in with some lyrics; the strings on 'Teardrops' are arranged by the legendary producer Arif Mardin, and so on.

And Elton prances through the album like the host at the party of his dreams. He seems to bend his voice slightly depending on his company, the sign of someone genuinely mucking in. The country twang which he uses as a matter of course opens wide for Tammy Wynette who, in one of the album's several moments of arch comedy, sings 'A Woman's Needs' ('A ring on my finger and champagne on ice/ A man to show me the best part of life/ A home and a family') while Elt knocks about at the edges of the chorus, wondering whether he's the man to deliver.

It was, by the way, Paul Young who couldn't find a window for Elton, but later added a vocal to 'I'm Your Puppet', on which he sounds, as ever, like someone trying to dislodge a marble from his throat. But for sheer vocal exertion, the prize goes to Leonard Cohen who opens 'Born to Lose' on a note so low, it seems to drop out of the bottom of the speakers and crawl towards you across the floor. Beside this even Elton can only sound (though one hesitates to put it in these terms) a little thin.

LISA STANSFIELD

So Natural

Arista 74321172313

THIS IS Lisa Stansfield's third album, and you sense the ideas are fast running dry. Again written and recorded with her partners Ian Devaney and Andy Morris, So Natural is sadly short of tunes, short of memorable moments, short of tricks altogether. Stansfield's voice is up high in the mix, where you catch the depth of her breathing, but she has nothing to cling on to here. We get 13 new numbers - mostly smoochy or meditative love songs - but no trace of the magnificence of 'All Woman'. Only 'Goodbye' gives her a chorus and a gimmick to work with. The arrangements are rigorously bare, featureless, rather than powerfully simple. As late as track nine, when a saxophone opens up 'Too Much Love Makin' ', it feels like the album's first detailed musical moment, the rest a forgetable wash of string synthesisers and padded keyboard parts. Stansfield has a fabulous voice, warm and unaffected, but it's languishing here for want of a change.

BOYZ II MEN

Christmas Interpretations

Motown 530 257-2

GLORIA ESTEFAN

Christmas Through Your Eyes

Epic EPC 474660 2

IT WOULD be absurd to to accuse Christmas albums of dealing in cliches - there's no reason why they shouldn't be as strictly ritualised as Christmas itself. Nevertheless, Boyz II Men deserve some credit for attempting to ring the changes, rather than the old bells sampled off the Phil Spector album. Christmas Interpretations features all new material, in contemporary harmony group style - barring the a cappella version of 'Silent Night' which opens and closes the album and bears absolutely zero relation to anything which happens in between.

A four-part close harmony group in their teens and early 20s, Boyz II Men sang the record-breaking ballad 'End of the Road', which stayed at No 1 last summer for what seemed like five years. And now they're the Motown label's brightest hope. Actually, looking at the rest of the roster, they're Motown's only hope. It is mildly disappointing, then, that they have chosen to follow their debut album, Cooleyhighharmony, with something strictly tied to a season, rather than with a record we could all play to death deep into next year.

Even so, this is a high-quality piece of work, which is no suprise given that the producer is Brian McKnight, the almost intolerably gifted 22-year-old, who released a snappy, self-named debut album late last year. It was eagerly devoured in America but cruelly overlooked here. McKnight supplies some of the songs - which are mostly slow soul ballads - and arranges some extraordinarily agile, lock- tight vocal parts. He is the brother of Claude V McKnight III, from the gifted a capella gospel group Take 6. The Boyz thank him in a fittingly profuse manner on the sleeve: 'We love you, man. Nuff respect.'

The songs play with the familiar tropes - love, snow, logs etc. But the regular snug homeliness is given a new spin by slow-churning drum machines and the occasional silky synth chord. The Boyz are probably the only group recording right now who could make the line 'Come over here and help me trim the tree' sound sticky with adolescent lust.

'Why Christmas?', though, is the almost inevitable attempt to introduce a social conscience into the festivities. 'Why are kids suffering?' ask the Boyz, voices trembling, and the broody tone of this seems to infect even the numbers with unashamed love and logs in them. Only on 'A Joyous Song' - all tricky off-beats and angular key-shifts - does the pace pick up slightly. For the rest, the Boyz sound chiefly like people who didn't get quite what they wanted. Christmas has rarely been this soulful, but it's certainly been funkier.

Round at Gloria Estefan's place, they do a very traditional Christmas - 'Silver Bells', 'Chestnuts Roasting', even 'White Christmas' - but, dressed up with all the trimmings in this heavy Phil Ramone production, it sounds depressingly samey, rather than warmly familiar. Hard indeed to make Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's seasonal stormer 'Let it Snow' sound like a sad journey through the slush, but somehow Estefan manages it. We learn that this album played a key role in the development of the Ramone's phone-line vocal technique (the process eventually employed in the making of the Sinatra album, mentioned above). It's a considerable irony, then, that great tracts of it should sound like the music you hear when a building society puts you on hold.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND

Live MCMXCIII

Sire 9362-45464-2

This is a concert souvenir, recorded in Paris last June during that previously unimaginable Velvet Underground reunion tour. Seemed like a bad idea at the time, but it worked out amazingly well, what with Mo Tucker's lumpy drums and John Cale's screeching viola and Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed trading guitar licks like student beginners through 'Sweet Jane' and 'Femme Fatale' and 'Heroin' . . . You had to be there, really.

Andy Gill returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)

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