POP / Albums: A small world

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The Glory of Gershwin

(Mercury 522 727-2)

Out on the Rolling Sea

(Hokey Pokey HPR 2004.2)

THE Glory of Gershwin might reasonably be subtitled ' . . . and the annoyance of Larry Adler', as the old raconteur's warbly harmonica steals in whenever there's a spare moment in these George Martin- arranged cover versions. This is fine on the concluding 'Rhapsody in Blue', which George Gershwin acknowledged could have been written for the mouth-organ maestro, but less welcome elsewhere.

As for the vocalists, most flounder like fish out of water. Chris De Burgh's 'Do What You Do', for instance, is execrable, while Cher's leaden 'It Ain't Necessarily So' is a joke when compared to Duffy Power's definitive bluesy reading. Carly Simon, on the other hand, does a respectable 'I've Got a Crush on You', and Lisa Stansfield, offers a flawlessly straightforward version of 'They Can't Take That Away from Me'.

Other relative successes include Elvis Costello's 'But Not for Me' and Kate Bush's 'The Man I Love', which sounds a little like a western saloon-bar caricature, though not unpleasantly so. The only real chance taken here, however, is when Robert Palmer marries his interest in Latin and Caribbean beats to 'I Got Rhythm': for a moment, a little fun elbows its way into the proceedings and the project loosens its cummerbund of stifling respect.

Out on the Rolling Sea is a similar tribute exercise - this time to the Bahamian folk guitarist Joseph Spence. One track in, and you've heard more musical styles and references than on the entire Gershwin project. This first track, a bizarre melange of gospel, marching band, tap-dance and other American folk forms entitled 'On the Rolling Sea When Jesus Came to Me', is by the eccentric Van Dyke Parks - his style always conjures up a fecund melting-pot America, but here it transfers well to Spence's native Caribbean.

Not all the artists are as daring, though several make ambitious geographical leaps. With 'Tsiaro', for instance, the Madagascan pop group Tarika Sammy emphasise similarities between Spence's work and Malagasy music, as does David Lindley, who offers up a light and breezy version of the Malagasy tune 'Afindranao'.

Mostly, though, the album is an excuse for multifarious guitar virtuosity from the likes of Lindley, Henry Kaiser and Michael Chapman, with a side-order of a cappella gospel, most notably on Blue Murder's 'I Bid You Goodnight'. Its diversity and lightness of touch makes Out on the Rolling Sea one of the best recent 'world' music releases, this year's equivalent of Kaiser / Lindley's essential A World Out of Time albums.

CABARET VOLTAIRE

The Conversation

(R&S/Apollo AMB 4934 CD)

SANDOZ

Intensely Radioactive

(Touch TO:23)

THE Conversation is a double-CD consisting of up-to-the-minute ambient-house vistas. But this is no ecstasy-frazzled escapism; Richard Kirk, the prolific industrial / techno pioneer, traces a more paranoid, urban sensibility. The ambitious, 53-minute-long 'Project 80', for instance, cruises weightlessly through several neighbourhoods, mostly deserted, some haunted, but few of them safe.

Though similar, Kirk's Cabaret Voltaire releases are more disruptive than those of his Sandoz persona. On Intensely Radioactive, samples of African chants and drums are sequenced into sync with his techno grooves, giving it a global feel, while retaining The Conversation's urban menace.

ZILLATRON

Lord of the Harvest

(Black Arc/Rykodisc RCD 10301)

FUNNY treated voices, heavy funk grooves, sci-fi fantasy lyrics, a Darth Vader helmet and a star- shaped bass - what else could it be but a new Bootsy Collins album? And so it is, 'Lord' Zillatron being but the latest nom de funk of the one-time James Brown, Deee-Lite and Parliament / Funkadelic bassist.

He's joined here by old Mothership keyboard cohort Bernie Worrell, co-producer Bill Laswell and avant-funk guitarist Buckethead on what the sleevenote warns is 'Silly P F. Real Silly. Maybe the Silliest.' He's not joking: Lord of the Harvest is baffling, built from a private mythology whose lyrical twists and turns are further disguised by indistinct or altered vocals. All that comes through is the occasional line like, 'we are all fallen sons of prophecy', and whispered entreaties to 'exterminate all rational thought', the latter hissed into one of the gaps in the thrash- metal riff that is 'Fuzz Face' - which, it appears, is yet another of Bootsy's pseudonyms. Does that make it any clearer?

Most of the tracks are osmium- heavy funk-metal workouts lent an extra depth by Laswell's skill with atmosphere, with tracks like 'Bugg Lite' showcasing Bootsy's bubbling bass runs and Buckethead's mad guitar fills. Sometimes, at opposite edges of its musical brief, the album touches on ambient space-scaping ('Smell the Secrets') and full-blown metal grind ('Count Zero'). The album's said to be a 'sonic landscape of the gradual apocalypse', although its experimental diversity renders it strangely reminiscent of Zappa's Mothers circa Weasels Ripped My Flesh.

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