ALBUMS / Rough and far from ready

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The Independent Online

World Gone Wrong

(Columbia 474857)

THIS IS effectively Volume Two of Good As I Been To You, last year's collection of old folk and blues ballads. Another 10 whiskery parables of human frailty constitute World Gone Wrong, with the notable difference that this time Dylan has included sleevenote annotations to each of the selections, written in his own semi-stream-of-consciousness style.

The performances seem in some cases more hurried and slapdash than before, and they're all poorly recorded, with loud tape hiss and indifferent miking. 'Jack-A-Roe' is a satisfyingly dark, emotionally complex rendering, and Blind Willie McTell's 'Broke Down Engine' is done with some spirit, Dylan even adding a little rat-a-tat-tat on his guitar's body as he sings the line 'Can't you hear me, baby, rapping on your door?' But most of the album is rough and slapdash, and sung in a fairly dispassionate manner, expression having been eroded from his once riveting voice by years of constant touring.

It's the liner-notes that offer the most interesting aspect of the album, Dylan using the opportunity to give a concerted moralistic broadside against the modern world, casting a traditional ballad like 'Love Henry' as a tale of colonial exploitation, and even picking up one of Mark E Smith's cast-off notions when he describes an old Mississippi Sheik's blues as faultlessly made for the 'New Dark Ages' we now live in. Elsewhere he writes of 'firing a few random shots at the face of time' and gets quite worked up about 'the insane world of entertainment exploding in our faces', positing these blasts from the past, in some cases quite bafflingly, as stern moral rejoinders to contemporary corruption.

Taken as a whole, with the album title, the splendid cover photos of Dylan drinking in top hat and gloves like some undertaker of the spirit, the songs steeped in deceit, treachery, venality and despair - not to mention his sometimes slightly berserk annotations, the picture builds up of the Blues as Bible Study, a series of lessons to be interpreted, in this case by the priestly Bobness.

Hence the rough-hewn nature of the performances: Dylan obviously believes their immediacy and authenticity, stripped of frippery but rich in poetic speculation, is somehow a more noble mode of artistic expression than the blandishments of new technology that bombard us daily.

But his is a rather austere view of the blues, stripped of all the transcendent joy and indulgence of human weakness that is such a vital part of its tradition: there's no forgiveness in Bob's blues. And while one sympathises with his search for more enduring values, it's self-evident that the past and the primitive by no means have a monopoly on the truth, though they certainly seem to have a monopoly on Dylan's attentions these days.


Both Sides

(Virgin CDV 2800)

THEN again, it's undeniable that the poetically encrypted meanings of the old songs Dylan cherishes are more thought-provoking than Phil Collins's latest batch of lukewarm social concern odes. It's partly a question of direct address - there's no subtlety of expression here, the 'issues' are all laid out for us, neatly labelled with suggestions as to how we should respond; partly one of the writer having little of interest to add to those issues.

'Both Sides of the Story', for instance, opens the album with an even-handedness perhaps admirable in the BBC, but a handicap for a songwriter. Why should it be so imperative to hear both sides of a story, as claimed? The drawbacks of such a mealy-mouthed approach are demonstrated in Collins's Ulster song, 'We Wait And We Wonder', wherein, having turned his attention to the knotty problems involved, Phil eventually reaches his conclusion: we wait and we wonder. That whereof we cannot speak, as Wittgenstein put it, ought best be passed over in silence.

Both Sides has a more unified tone than other Phil Collins LPs, a tone of discreet concern set to tepid MOR pop-soul arrangements: whether it's affairs of the heart or of the state, he never lets himself lose control and make a rash statement that might prove unpopular with his audience. The only time he comes near to emoting is on 'Survivors', the self-interested theme of which stands in much the same relation to rock'n'roll as patriotism does to the scoundrel.

Throughout the album we're led to believe Collins is grappling with weighty issues, only to find that he's really only parading his concern. The tautological 'We're Sons of Our Fathers' - a sentiment expressed so well by Chicory Tip - finds him wringing his hands over These Kids Today: 'When I was a boy, did we have more respect / The world seemed a nicer place to be,' he ponders, before concluding 'When will we ever learn / Yet I'm a believer.' Likewise, in 'There's a Place for Us', what seems at first glance to be a love song eventually reveals itself in the final verse, to have a substantially narrower orbit: 'We'll find a hideaway . . . there must be someplace . . . where they don't know my face.'

To which one is tempted to point out that it was not this apparently annoying 'they' who spent the last decade thrusting Phil's face into our lives, unless of course he's referring to Virgin Records.


Espresso Logic

(Eastwest 4509-94311-2)

'IF YOU don't say what's true, you'll end in chains,' sings Chris Rea in 'Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea', a neat summation of his new album's political slant, in which he chooses red over blue ('Red') and, on the title-track, advocates civil disobedience: 'If you don't listen to what the people say / The people gonna have to take their own way.'

Elsewhere, his intentions are less clear. The jaunty, ambiguous 'New Way' seems to welcome the religious 'cleansing' of political volition, though it may just be sarcasm too heavy to register. That's certainly the case in 'Soup of The Day', an anti-anorexic-image song for which he adopts a bluesy vocal tone akin to his slide-guitar mentor Lowell George.

Closer to Rea's heart, perhaps, is the aged subject of 'She Closed Her Eyes', in which he comes out in favour of turning off the TV and turning on memory and imagination.

Musically, Espresso Logic is a little less raw than before, with Rea essaying a slow, 3am-style jazz-blues in 'Stop', and Davy Spillane's uillean pipes adding a Celtic shade to some tracks. And despite the album's predominantly depressed tone, there are enough shafts of light to make his negative prognosis bearable. Rea's good on futility - of continued relationships, of political efficacy, of personal fulfilment - but he still manages to sound as if a few shreds of hope drive him along.

(Photograph omitted)