McAlmont & Butler The Sound of McAlmont & Butler (Hut CDHUT32)

'This CD - not so much an album, more a compilation of tracks- so-far - marks the probable swansong of their union, the relationship having apparently foundered on personal terms'
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The pairing of ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and stratospheric- voiced David McAlmont was one of the more promising pop liaisons of the year, ushered in with full orchestral panoply on the top ten single "Yes". I use the past tense because this CD - not so much an album, more a compilation of tracks so far - marks the probable swansong of their union, the relationship having apparently foundered on personal terms, to use the footballing metaphor.

As such, The Sound of McAlmont & Butler is a bit of a false start. The best of these 11 tracks is the second single, "You Do", on which the duo bring their abilities to bear on a melody with the requisite grace and restraint. Elsewhere, stratagems and ideas are devised which can only have been better in theory than praxis: "The Debitor", for instance, is a raunchy stomp, over which a hopelessly mismatched McAlmont warbles incongruously. The lengthy "Disappointment" is relatively fine until about four minutes in, when it loses its already tenuous grasp on structure and all but dissolves completely, as if determined to live down to its title. Better by far is "How About You?", on which the duo's talents mesh perfectly with the elegant arrangement in the manner of Tim Buckley's Lorca.

In general, the majority of tracks sound like what they are, the B-sides and filler from the singles; and though Butler's guitar work is always intriguing, there are signs that McAlmont's inflections, for all their three-octave scope, are sometimes wielded with too little thought. At his best, he could be the male Dusty Springfield, but there is too often no impression of a particular vocal sound matching an equivalent emotion.

The worst-case scenario occurs on a cover of Barbara Lynn's plaintive "You'll Lose a Good Thing", which is ruined by the churchy presumption and halting progression of the arrangement, which throws McAlmont's vocal into too harsh a silhouette. As they acknowledge on another track, "Don't Call It Soul".


Liquid Swords

(Geffen GED 24813)

Yet another member of New York's rapping Wu-Tang Clan releasing a solo album, the Genius/GZA and his likewise succinctly-named producer RZA are making a late bid for rap album of the year with the intriguing Liquid Swords. Furiously articulate compared to the tired G-Funk threats of most West Coast rap, the Genius/GZA specialises in extravagant rhymes and wordplay, unleashing flash-floods of verbiage punctuated here with excerpts from a dubbed kung-fu movie.

Equally dismissive of institutionalised church and record industry in tracks like "B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)" and "Labels", the Genius/GZA mainly deals in elaborate, operatic representations of ghetto streetlife, laced with martial arts imagery and violent metaphors. The album title, for example, refers to the fluid sharpness of the rapper's own verbal dexterity.

Heavy on the doomy organs and haunted-house piano chords, RZA's minimal production here is trip-hop bleak and creepy, supporting the contention that the Wu-Tang Clan are the only American rap crew taking notice of outside musical developments, for all their tight lyrical focus on their own small, violent world. The absence of familiar P-Funk samples in tracks like "Cold World" gives Liquid Swords a chilly alien aspect that speaks just as loudly, but with greater originality, about the black American experience.

It may have been a relatively dull year for US rap, but the British variant continues to impress. Like the splendid debut album from Eusebe, Darkman's Worldwide has a relaxed, infectious appeal and eschews the more jurassic attitudes of American rap in favour of customs more closely related to the UK and the Caribbean. The result is summed up best by tracks such as "Wicked", which uses a couple of lazy chords from a Tamlins record to offer a beautifully smooth evocation of cruising around West London.

Darkman's raps are assertive without being aggressive, and there is a certain sway to his grooves that could be the UK equivalent of G-Funk. And best of all, as far as I could discern, there's not a shooter in sight.

The opening track here, "The Old Stuff", encapsulates both the good and the bad aspects of Garth Brooks. The bad is that streak of self-serving country piety which has Brooks start the piece by telling us how he said a little prayer tonight. The good is the slick road song that follows, a muscular dash that recalls The Flying Burrito Brothers' classic live album, although the applause here, one suspects, is less authentic.

Garth's band are clearly a tidy proposition live, if this and the celebration of rodeo recklessness "Fever" ("We're all here 'cause he's not all there tonight") are anything to go by, but unfortunately, Fresh Horses leans more towards the ballad end of his output. This reaches a nadir on "The Change", where he is forced to navigate his way round anodyne sentiments like "As long as one heart still holds on, then hope is never really gone". It is not one of Garth's own songs, and he sounds comparatively ill at ease with it. Some might say he ought to feel even less at ease on his own composition "Ireland", which attempts to deal with such matters as war and sacrifice without treading on any sectarian toes. Even President Slick Willy would be impressed at the nimble dance Brooks does over such tricky terrain. You wouldn't know it was about Ireland unless it was thus titled. Perhaps it isn't.

There are no such worries for Willie Nelson on his latest album, which returns to basic country style after last year's Moonlight Becomes You, a bland set of romantic ballads, and Across the Borderline, 1993's acclaimed album of celebrity duets.

What this means in practice is that there are a couple of chilly duets - Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" and Floyd Tillman's "This Cold Cold War With You" - with Kimmie Rhodes alongside a saddlebag of other country staples such as "Bonaparte's Retreat". The pairing of Willie and Kimmie works in a way akin to that of Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle on the One From the Heart soundtrack - a grizzled groan of experience tempered with a breath of angelic purity, and the Hank Williams classic fits the Nelson style like a well-worn buckskin glove.

Sprightly even when serenading, he brings to the country genre a warmth and gentle humanity lacking in the more streamlined style of Garth Brooks, for all the younger singer's professionalism.

Van Morrison has done the almost impossible - made a Van album just about everyone can dislike. It's quite an achievement, especially since it comes on the back of his best new album in years.

Recorded live at Ronnie Scott's, How Long Has This Been Going On? is Van's long-threatened jazz album, a lazy trawl through standards like "That's Life" and "Who Can I Turn To?" bulked out with the jazzier of old Van classics, such as "Moondance", which loses the casual command of the original but gains some scat nonsense, a poor deal by anyone's standards.

Van's old chum Georgie Fame is a dubious plus on laboured tracks like "The New Symphony Sid" and "Sack O' Woe", although trumpeter Guy Barker fares rather better on his showcases, especially the muted solo in "Centrepiece".

The tenor of the album is perhaps better captured in the abysmal scat 'n' horn groove "Heathrow Shuffle"; there is no Van track more bereft of appeal. It's his very own "Jazz Odyssey": on vocals, Van Morrison - he wrote this!