POP ALBUMS / A brush with genius

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- Joni Mitchell

Turbulent Indigo

(Reprise 9362-45786-2)

There's a new, smoky texture to Joni Mitchell's voice that's utterly in keeping with the mature insights and observations of her 15th album. Featuring a cheeky little self-portrait of herself as Vincent van Gogh on the sleeve, Turbulent Indigo finds Mitchell railing as politely and articulately as ever against characters and institutions, from the celebrity wife-beater of ``Not to Blame'', through the nuns - ``These bloodless brides of Jesus'' - feeding off the distress of the destitute in ``The Magdalene Laundries'', to God himself in ``The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)''.

Those poor yuppies, with their ``Hard bodies / Soft emotions'' and short-term attitudes, are pitied in ``How Do You Stop'', while the catalogue of modern ills in ``Sex Kills'' is as close as she gets to outright anger, a burst of vituperation inspired by pulling up behind a Cadillac bearing the number-plate JUST ICE. ``Is Justice just ice?'' she muses, ``Governed by greed and lust? Just the strong doing what they can /And the weak suffering what they must?'' The shards of distorted guitar which cut through the dystopian gloom of the backing track here are virtually the only overt musical emotions to disturb the calm, lite-jazz contours of the arrangements, which recall earlier albums such as Hejira and Mingus. It's a more focused, measured work overall than her last album, 1991's Night Ride Home, and the huskier tones of her singing suggest that, unlike many of her age and accomplishments, this constitutes the beginning of a new phase in her career, rather than the tired repetitions of an old formula.

Walter Becker

- 11 Tracks of Whack

(Giant 74321 22609 2)

On his first solo album, the other half of Steely Dan retains many of the classic Dan characteristics, most notably the unerring eye for human fallibility which earned that group their reputation for cynicism. Co-produced by Donald Fagen, it continues the line in sophisticated jazz-rock tableaux traced by the later Steely Dan LPs and Fagen's solo records, with interesting chord changes and impeccably tasteful solos employed in the service of bleakly witty observations.

``Surf And / Or Die'' is typical: a great title, a curtain of tense jazz chords, an ululating undertow of Tibetan chanting and a fluid, pithy guitar solo, all laced to a funk breakbeat and used as backdrop to a beatnik rap about envelope-pushing low-lifers. ``Lucky Henry'' and ``Book of Liars'' take the formula even closer to cool jazz-poetry territory, wielding the familiar Dan elements in a more open, bluesy setting, but with little of the specific engagement once provided by the pointed irony of Fagen's voice. Becker is a less expressive singer, with a line in world-weariness which appeals on the opener ``Down in the Bottom'' but which palls slightly as the album proceeds.

It does, however, help bring an appropriately tart edge of bitter resignation to Becker's midlife ruminations, of which there are several on 11 Tracks of Whack. The quartet of ``Cringemaker'', ``Girlfriend'', ``My Waterloo'' and ``This Moody Bastard'' finds the college-cynic swagger of the early Dan albums hobbled by lonely reflection upon past mistakes, poor relationships and bad habits, with a numbed but self-mocking acceptance of an awful status quo. The parade of urbane pessimism - relieved only by the sci-fi chuckle ``Hat Too Flat'' - about interplanetary racism - seems to imply that even the smartest-assed come to define themselves by their dumbest decisions.

- Jimmy Page & Robert Plant

No Quarter: Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Unledded

(Fontana 526 362-2)

For their entry in the MTV Unplugged series, Page & Plant have trawled through the Led Zeppelin back catalogue and picked the tracks which best lend themselves to a sort of Anglo-Arabic revision process, re-arranging them for an ensemble which includes musicians from Egypt and Morocco alongside a sizeable orchestral string section, the rhythm section from Plant's group, former Cure guitarist Porl Thompson, and a smattering of folk instruments from various locales.

Unsurprisingly, Led Zeppelin III furnishes more tracks than their other albums, that being the record on which Zep realised that the tools of folk music could be changed to reflect ``heavier'' times; indeed, No Quarter reprises that album's dedication to their Welsh cottage Bron-Y-Aur, ``for painting a somewhat forgotten picture of true completeness which acted as an incentive to some of the musical statements''. If anything, however, these new versions demonstrate how premature such notions of completeness really are.

Some tracks - ``Kashmir'', obviously, and ``Gallows Pole'' - lend themselves well to the Moorish influence, while others are more substantially altered. ``Four Sticks'' is subdued by comparison with the original, P & P letting the hypnotic patter of Gnawa hand percussion stand in for the song's big-riff dynamic, while ``Friends'' comes with a new overture played on Arabic strings and flute. ``The Battle of Evermore'' perhaps best demonstrates the fertile grey area between the Eastern and Western musical traditions, showing just how close Arabic string drones are to our own hurdy-gurdy and resonant mandolin.

- Nirvana

Unplugged in New York

(Geffen GED 24727)

A sad document rendered all the more pitiful in retrospect, particularly when Kurt Cobain sings the line ``And I swear I don't have a gun'', Nirvana's MTV Unplugged entry is as bare-bones rudimentary as the series has thrown up. Aside from additional guitar parts played by Pat Smear and the Meat Puppets' Curt and Cris Kirkwood - who also contribute three songs to Nirvana's set - the only extra embellishment comes from Krist Novoselic's wheezy accordion on a cover of the Vaselines' ``Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam'' and the addition of Lori Goldston's mournful cello on a few tracks, which simply raises the self-pity count further than its already close-to-toxic level.

In some cases, the starker acoustic settings do have the effect of sucking the aggression out of the songs, leaving all the more plaintive these cornerstones of what has become an institutionalised culture of complaint, complete now with its own patron saint. The best of these is ``All Apologies'', not for nothing the ``plug cut'' featured in heavy rotation on MTV. Others, like ``Pennyroyal Tea'' and ``Dumb'', make scant impression at all, while the Meat Puppets covers are desert-dry and frail - though indicative of a different type of madness entirely from that suffered by Kurt Cobain.

(Photograph omitted)