Albums: Tasmin Archer Bloom EMI CDEMC 3728

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The Independent Online
Having resisted any pressure to come up with a swift follow-up to her 1992 debut, Great Expectations, Tasmin Archer finally unveils her new sound to reveal that in the intervening three and a half years, she's transformed herself into Aimee Mann - no bad thing in songwriting terms, though who'd swap her sales for Aimee's?

Working again with her co-writer, John Hughes, she's crafted 11 tart little vignettes of deception and disillusion, from the sugar-tipped barbs of hurt resentment in "You Made a Fool out of Me" and "I Would Love to Be Right" - which could have been hidden on Mann's last album, so perfectly do they match her emotional undergrowth - to the sweetly melancholic "Rain Falling", which contains moody echoes of everything from The Beatles to Bacharach, by way of Simon & Garfunkel: hardly cause for concern, one imagines. Like Noel Gallagher, however, she sometimes plays the memory game a touch too close for comfort; the echoes of "Oliver's Army" in the chorus of "After Hell" must have seemed familiar to the album's rhythm section - Pete and Bruce Thomas of The Attractions.

The producer Mitchell Froom has kept things fairly simple, for the most part: the majority of instrumental colouration is provided by his various Hammonds, Wurlitzers and harmoniums, tastefully touched up here and there with discreet smudges of electric guitar and, on two tracks, a string quartet. It's a songwriter's album through and through - nothing is allowed to get in the way of the songs, and in the songs themselves, nothing is allowed to get in the way of the emotions. It's this immediacy of feeling that sets Bloom apart from most of her peers' work, and which has enabled Archer to handle that difficult second album with a bittersweet grace.

Luniz

Operation Stackola

Noo Trybe/Virgin CDVUS 94

For gun-totin', weed-blowin', crack-dealin' gangstas, these Luniz seem like nice lads. You know them - they've got five on it, whatever it is, and seem pretty damn pleased with themselves about the fact. As well they might be: just holding together that speed of speech on their top-five single is a notable achievement, if they're half as stoned as they make out.

Helped on a few tracks by Digital Underground's Shock G (aka Humpty Hump), Luniz keep the funk fat and fruity on the rest of Operation Stackola, rabbiting their brags and threats with a torrential inevitability every bit as impressive as 2Pac, but rather more approachable. They define themselves as the "Crazy Comical Wild Side of Gangsta Hiphop Non Playa' Hata's", which itself requires the CD's accompanying (and invaluable) glossary of gangsta argot to learn that Playa Hata's are "Somebody Dat Down Grade You to Get Some Pussy or to Get What Dey Want", which I'd imagine covers a multitude of sinners.

Their logo, a mean-looking cartoon condom carrying an automatic handgun, perfectly captures the oddly ambivalent attitude towards death in this milieu - guns okay, Aids not okay. Such a tightly circumscribed moral universe allows only the usual room to move, but they make the most of it: sexual relations are reduced to their most brutally mercenary on "Broke Ho's" and "She's Just a Freak". Police codes are borrowed for "5150", a view of violence from the wrong end of the gun-barrel, and "900 Blame a Nigga" treats police/ community relations with a snidey, whining sarcasm worthy of Cypress Hill, perhaps their closest stylistic equivalent. And if you don't agree, all you Briddy Gafflas can go Rigg Up your Hooptie Dangle Rolls. Or something like that.

Having ditched their dreamy, effects-drenched earlier style for one with Britpop-friendlier clarity and simplicity, Lush have finally scored the medium-level hits they've been threatening for a few years. But it's debatable whether Lovelife will lead to any greater chart incursions than the Top 20-something positions furnished by "Single Girl" and "Ladykillers". For despite its occasionally winsome charms, the album is ultimately hobbled by the same kind of technical shortcomings as their earlier work.

It's appropriate for primitive indie-rock to sound as if the players' eyes are perpetually glued to their frets, but Lush's new kind of pure pop demands a more carefree, insouciant swagger; in its absence, all the spry harmonies and well-turned tales from the sexual warzone just seem all the more artificial, even when a guesting Jarvis plays Lee Hazelwood to Miki Berenyi's Nancy Sinatra, swapping insults on "Ciao!". They try to be deadpan, but it just seems leaden.

What does American rock do in the aftermath of grunge? Apart, of course, from lapse back into the perpetual adolescence of heavy metal? Plucked recently from their touch-and-go indie existence to plug Geffen Records's yawning Nirvana gap, Girls Against Boys are widely regarded as the next hot crossover prospect - good news, by the sound of it, for several old post-punk farts, especially Mark E Smith, whose nonchalant vocal slouch singer Scott McCloud apes shamelessly, as he drawls on incomprehensibly about sex and death and suchlike.

The music, too, seems formalist and formulaic, honing the grey guitar textures of early-Eighties Goth and industrial rock to a more focused point, which the band batters home with a sluggish swagger, like Joy Division with attitude rather than anomie. You can see Geffen's point, I suppose - House Of GVSB does offer a lively little sulk for the Lollapalooza generation, peering as it does into the same abyss as that so assiduously inspected by Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, albeit at a slower, more numbed pace. It's a truly alienated industrial grind, the voice impervious to emotion and the guitars operated like robot drills. It's a well-designed, metallic, matt-finished product, but ultimately less riveting than they might have hoped.

The sleeve photo to Mark Eitzel's solo album captures its misty, becalmed mood perfectly - a lonely vessel is portrayed adrift on the first of several watery metaphors, just like the songwriter. Within are stranded tidal pools, beached whitefish, hearts full of rain, a ship's graveyard, and the "wild sea that moans and boils filled with old ghosts and a whole other language uncoiling forever indecent and foreign".

The sublime melancholy of Goffin & King's "No Easy Way Down" opens proceedings; true to its title, it sets standards Eitzel's own material struggles to equal, mainly for structural reasons: unlike his work with American Music Club, these songs are more like rolling waves of imagery, stream- of-consciousness torch songs doomed to heavy heart. Musically, by contrast, it's a less-demanding voyage than his AMC work, with Mark Isham's desolate trumpet slanting the songs more toward the jazzier end of quality pop, where the melodies can be a touch too pale and interesting for their own good. At its best, 60 Watt Silver Lining has something of Chet Baker's fatigued glamour; at its worst, the words Hue and Cry loom horribly large.

Some of the songs do send out interesting ripples, though, particularly Eitzel's Bacharach tribute "Saved" and "Cleopatra Jones", which opens with the year's most arresting line - "The people I was with said you were nothing but a fag-hag and a dope-fiend" - but resolves into a surprisingly sincere tribute to a Seventies blaxploitation icon. Even when handling the ephemeral, Eitzel knows the heartfelt has the ironic beaten every time.

ANDY GILL

Lush

Lovelife

4AD CAD 6004

Girls Against Boys

House of GVSB

Touch and go TG 149

Mark Eitzel

60 Watt Silver Lining

Virgin CDV 2798

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