POP ALBUMS / Ever-decreasing circles

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- Pearl Jam

Vitalogy

(Epic EPC 477861 2)

Either I'm feeling peculiarly mellow, or Pearl Jam are improving, but I don't hate Vitalogy quite as much as the group's two previous albums, which is especially surprising given that it consists of a series of faint shock-ripples spreading concentrically away from the fact of Kurt Cobain's suicide, thus coming perilously close to slacker maudlin at times. In tracks like the anthemic ``Nothingman'', the loss of their grunge avatar has spurred them to their best work.

The album opens with Eddie Vedder grasping the nettle of suicide firmly with ``Last Exit'', a song about corporeal rot which is ironically performed with more life than anything on Vs. Then Vedder slips into a familiar round of frustration and recrimination, railing with varying degrees of articulacy against his own popularity - one track consists solely of him spelling the word ``privacy'' over and over - and the demands of the corporate rock-biz machine of which Nirvana once accused Pearl Jam of being a cog. Indeed, there's an unpleasant stench of ingratitude about Vitalogy: the album is drenched in imagery that casts fans as parasites, from the ``Bugs'' invading his room in the song of that title to the explicit mention, in ``Immortality'', of ``Victims in demand for public show''.

There seems, in all this, no inkling of the notion of a Faustian pact which might give the material a more considered view of the pressures of celebrity: the cruel lines just sit there as a series of ingrate moans. It used to be that rich rock stars, dissatisfied with the glass-bowl life, would simply take a long vacation, but Pearl Jam claim the right to make a concept album about how much they hate being famous - which rather takes the biscuit.

- The Sabres of Paradise

Haunted Dancehall

(Warp / Sabresonic WARPCD 26)

- Mike Oldfield

The Songs of Distant Earth

(WEA 4509-98581 2)

The idea of a long-playing album as an aural journey goes back decades to the likes of Martin Denny and Esquivel's bizarre avant-garde easy-listening records of the Fifties, the precursors of Dark Side of the Moon with which early hi-fi buffs would test out their stereo systems. These two albums deal with similar peregrinations, though there's more than simply a sense of scale separating them.

The second full-length offering from producer Andy Weatherall's ambient dub trio, the Sabres of Paradise features 14 titles, to each of which is appended a brief snatch of London-lad text, the various bits building into a narrative tracing the journey of one McGuire across the capital to the eponymous haunted dance-hall.

In fact, of course, it never leaves the studio: virtually every sound on the album has been flanged, compressed, filtered and delayed, until in some cases only smudges of indefinable sound remain, still dancing nimbly with each other. Many of the elements of hard techno and blissed-out ambient / trance music are present, but the Sabres' purview stretches further: what are we to make of ``Duke of Earlsfield'' (a pub, presumably) on which a combination forward and backward drum shuffle and a chandelier cascade of glass-tones stalks along over a confidently loping bass? McGuire's may be a short trip, but it's done with an eye alert to the small details encountered along the way.

Mike Oldfield's chosen journey is far more galactically extensive, but ironically covers much less ground. Inspired by Arthur C Clarke, The Songs of Distant Earth is replete with many of the same fizzy, bubbling synth noises as Haunted Dancehall, but there's a residue of anachronistic performance aesthetic noticeable in the swirls of Oldfield's characteristic smug-toned guitar and the ghastly angelic female crooning that drifts among the pieces.

A slew of found-sound samples - mumbling monks, shrieking seagulls, and a Polynesian choir - gives a little diversity to the 17 tracks, but ultimately this seems like a very short journey stretched out interminably.

- Various Artists

Woodstock 94

(A&M 540 322-2)

Three days of mud, metal and misery. Doom-laden heavy metal from Metallica, spiky retro-punk nihilism from Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails seeking ``Happiness In Slavery'' - well, it's somebody's idea of a fun weekend, I guess. But apart from the mud arriving bang on cue, there's precious little to connect this show and the original Woodstock.

The event's uneasy blend of hoary old stadium acts like Aerosmith, Zucchero and Joe Cocker with younger ``Generation X''-oriented acts like Porno For Pyros and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers means that many of the identifying wrinkles are ironed out in the search for some common ground. All ages, though, are subject to the strains of the event: Traffic's ``Pearly Queen'' is horrible muso stodge, while both Cypress Hill and The Rollins Band fail to make a virtue out of their unintelligibility. Only Dylan, God bless him, rises to the occasion.

The most significant difference between this mish-mash and the original Woodstock album, however, is the lack of political engagement or direction in the vast majority of these songs. Indeed, the most dramatic moment here is the change in tone and tenor when Peter Gabriel concludes the album with an impassioned ``Biko'', a last-ditch attempt to inject a little conscience into the proceedings.

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