ALBUMS / Into the darklands

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Sleeps with Angels

(Reprise 9362-45749-2)

'FEATURING 'Piece of Crap' ', boasts the sticker, proudly drawing attention to the least representative track on the album, a punky anti- consumerist diatribe that sounds like it was recorded in, if anything, less than one take. But even on such a throwaway, Neil Young can still discover the brutish wit appropriate to the subject at hand: 'Saw it on the tube / Bought it on the phone / Now you're home alone / It's a piece of crap.' Age has yet to wither his way with a pithy condemnation.

After the saccharine commerciality of Harvest Moon, his last studio work, Sleeps with Angels finds Young heading out to more parched, desolate territory with Crazy Horse, the backing band tailored to fit his earthier needs. The title track apparently commemorates Kurt Cobain who, in his suicide note, quoted Young's line about 'burning out being better than fading away'; Neil's response is a simple, seemingly dispassionate vignette of loss, strung between the complementary chorus responses 'too late' and 'too soon'.

Bookended by bar-room piano laments which evoke Peckinpah westerns - themselves cinematic symphonies of loss - the album is a largely subdued and brooding affair, with the 14-minute centrepiece 'Change Your Mind' echoing earlier lengthy guitar workouts like 'Cowgirl in the Sand', and the dark rapture of the sullen blues trudge 'Blue Eden' fully justifying Young's position as Godfather of Grunge. In between these tougher tracks are scattered a few typically soft romantic ballads, the kind of thing Young could write in his sleep and - judging by the naive embarrassment of 'Western Hero' - probably did. But the highlights here are all dark: the moody, hypnotic 'Safeway Cart' offers yet another glimpse at the American malaise, and the ghostly 'Trans Am' is the latest instalment in the line of contemporary American tableaux which runs from 'The Old Laughing Lady' to 'Crime in the City'. In other words, just another Neil Young masterpiece.

PRINCE 1958-1993


(Warner Bros. 9362-45700-2)

MERCIFULLY, Prince uses his original name on this album, though as the dates suggest, this is absolutely the final product from that now presumably deceased incarnation of The Nameless One. It's easy to see why, too: after a string of bloated, overlong albums of variable quality, this is as compact and condensed a burst of pure sex-funk as he's produced since Lovesexy, fewer than 50 minutes of peerless grooves that it would be hard to best. He's getting out while he's ahead, leaving us with what may well be his finest album since the far distant days of Purple Rain and Parade.

As titles like 'Pheromone', 'Come' and 'Orgasm' suggest, Prince is hardly breaking new territory thematically, though, even by his racy standards, the promiscuity is dealt with in brutally frank - as in borderline pornographic - fashion. For Prince it's clearly just another hard day at the orifice. The title track itself opens proceedings with a lazily tumescent 11-minute jazz-funk workout which blends Steely Dan-smooth horn arrangements with the bluntest of chat-up lines and a few slurping noises of dubious origin, while 'Pheromone' and 'Orgasm' suffer somewhat from the corny crashing-wave noises that are a backdrop for Prince's seduction-speak. 'Lie down beneath my shadow,' he commands on the former, while 'Orgasm' features his distorted guitar histrionics and vocal encouragement as a lady friend relaxes loudly in a manner unlikely to garner widespread playlisting.

These comical moments aside, though, Come seethes with a rare passion, both on a techno rave-up like 'Loose]' and a slow, Southern- soul grind like 'Dark', whose fancy, Toussaint-styled horns embellish a smouldering gospel heart. In between these two poles, are a series of low-riding funk grooves like 'Letitgo' and 'Race', the latter an anti- racist tract set to a rhythm stretched between a deep, deep sub-bass boom and a drum track reduced to just tight hi-hat and explosive snare shots. Much less successful is 'Solo', an experimental blend of harp, high-register vocal and hall- sized reverb co-written with one David Henry Hwang, which seems an aberration; NPG bassist Sonny T is Prince's most valuable accomplice here, lending the songs a depth and texture that is sometimes absent in the pocket genius's earlier work.


Stoned and Dethroned

(Blanco Y Negro 4509-96717-2)

THIS is about as light and chirpy a release as we can expect from such thoroughgoing melancholics as the Jesus & Mary Chain. Long rumoured to be their 'acoustic' album, it's not quite completely Unplugged, though the approach throughout is more tender and contemplative than they're known for. For a group that started out with the barely restrained Velvet Underground amphetamine rush of Psychocandy, this is the equivalent of the the third Velvets album, the songs scoured free of feedback and left pink and scrubbed, with the references to drugs and violence exposed like weeping sores.

It's mostly William Reid's album - he has written 12 of the 17 songs and co-written another with his brother - which brings it closer to Darklands than the rest of their work. Songs like 'Wish I Could' and 'Hole' retain the sullen, smacked-out feel of the earlier JAMC, although in these gentler, more prosaic settings their numbness seems, oddly, even more alienating. The guest vocalists, too, are a little on the numb side: Shane MacGowan features wanly on 'God Help Me' - the album's 'Pale Blue Eyes' - while Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval plays Nancy Sinatra to Jim Reid's Lee Hazlewood on the single 'Sometimes Always'.

Stoned and Dethroned is not without its magical moments, when the JAMC's knack with classic chord structures rolls implacably over one's doubts, but it's no classic overall. There's a subtext at work which involves the JAMC's growing-up in public as musicians, almost as if they were admitting they'd used all that distortion and feedback as a smokescreen to cover their inadequacies, phasing it out as they attained a certain competence.

But it must be said that a few of these dolorous odes could do with a jolt of serious electricity applied to their comatose bodies.

(Photograph omitted)