POP / Albums: Hickory-smoked harmonies

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(Essential ESSCD 199)

THE sleeve illustration, a gaudy echo of the Big Pink house - Big Shocking Pink, if you like - is far less welcome here than the music, which, though undeniably a fainter photocopy of The Band in their prime, has enough of the salient details in place to do more than merely trigger memories of past glories. The mournful horns and whirligig organ of Garth Hudson, and the hickory-smoked harmonies of Levon Helm and Rick Danko, are in full effect throughout, but care has been taken, in the absence of chief songwriter Robbie Robertson, to apply them mostly to material that matches their distinction.

'Caves of Jericho', for instance, takes on a typical Band subject, a mining disaster in Kentucky, and drives a full funeral cortege through it, Hudson's horns sobbing with wracked dignity. It's the best of their own compositions here - the opener, 'Remedy', is this album's 'Strawberry Wine', an unexceptional scene-setting party tune, while 'Move to Japan' is frankly embarrassing, a summary of oriental characteristics collated as a response to the supplanting of American hegemony by Japanese influence.

The group's taste in covers, though, remains sturdy enough for the most part: the inevitable Dylan cover here is 'Blind Willie McTell', probably his finest composition of the Eighties, and seemingly custom-built for Danko and Helm's weathered fatalism. Riding on mandolin and accordion, Springsteen's 'Atlantic City' is taken at a jaunty clip, while Willie Dixon's 'Same Thing' profits from waspish wisps of slide guitar by John Weider, one of the three new members drafted in to replace Robertson and Manuel. Muddy Waters' 'Stuff You Gotta Watch', by comparison, is marginally less sprightly than the covers on Moondog Matinee.

There's even a posthumous contribution from Richard Manuel, sounding more than ever like Ray Charles on a warm reading of 'Country Boy' that pierces straight to the heart despite its amiability. It's a pity, though, that the care and dignity applied to the music hasn't stretched to the caption for the late pianist's photo, where he's referred to as Richard Manual.


Tease Me

(Mango CIDMX 1102)

SWIFTLY reissued with extra tracks to capitalise on the success of 'Twist and Shout', Tease Me is the ragga album you can leave on for more than two or three tracks at a time without tearing your hair out. Quite apart from the captivating sensuality of the title-track and their winning approach to the old Isleys / Beatles hit - rude in spirit, euphoric in style - the duo also have the immeasurable benefit of producers Sly & Robbie, who bring their wealth of crossover experience to the project, which as a result is less mechanical and synthetic than ragga backing tracks by such as Steely & Clevie.

Of course, it helps that the combination of Pliers' liquid soul grace and Chaka Demus's hairier-chested, gruffer toasting style forms a winning blend of innocence and experience. The former is clearly at his best on smooth soul material like Curtis Mayfield's 'She Don't Let Nobody' and 'I Wanna Be Your Man', though it's only Chaka's switch to an additional knee- trembling baritone croon that saves 'Let's Make It Tonight' from sounding like a smooch- soul parody.

Elsewhere, the cover of George Clinton's 'One Nation under a Groove' seems a trifle perfunctory, while 'Bam Bam' might have acquired some of the joyous effervescence of Toots Hibbert's original had Chaka been allowed to charge in with the feistiness he brings to the splendid 'Friday Evening'.



(RCA 74321182602)

ZZ Top may claim that their new album is intended as a tribute to those great disseminators of the American Dream, the big-wattage radio stations also eulogised in Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, but really it's still all about cars, for the most part.

The radio in 'Antenna Head' is heard while cruising, the 'Girl in a T-Shirt' is clocked 'wheelin' in her big Seville', and even safe sex is dealt with by way of trucking metaphors in 'Cover Your Rig', wherein good advice and the de rigueur blues reference are couched in slightly saucy terms: 'Let nothin' abuse you / Or come from behind / Say baby I wantcha / I'm hurtin' so big / Take out some insurance / And cover your rig'.

Elsewhere, Antenna is pretty standard fare, a succession of typical Top boogies like 'Fuzzbox Voodoo', the single 'Pincushion' and, continuing the car theme, RPCHS - a tribute to the Pacific coast highway, which certainly merits it. Standing out from this general run is the slow, sensuous 'Breakaway', their tenderest moment since 'Rough Boy', with Billy Gibbons' voice groaning under the strain of so much soul. It sounds more like Little Feat than the Top, which is no bad thing, as otherwise the blank complacency espoused in the hedonist anthem 'Lizard Life' - 'Like a life minus mind / I prefer reclinin' ' - comes a little too close for comfort to their own situation.


Under The Pink

(Eastwest 7567-82567-2)

IF ZZ Top could be said to personify boys' interests, with their cars and radios and good-time hedonist slant, Tori Amos can equally be said to personify women's matters, with her incessant picking-apart of interpersonal relations, dredging-up of childhood memories and sharing of intimate secrets. It's about feelings, as opposed to things.

Amos claims this second album is about female empowerment, and certainly, it's rare to find a singer-songwriter dealing so baldly with subjects like irrational rage ('The Waitress') and masturbation ('Icicle', which celebrates self-pleasuring as an antidote to oppressive religious upbringing). Less original, and less effective, are the songs which conform to a rather Victorian idea of childhood; time and again here the listener is confronted by the kind of girls who go on picnics to Hanging Rock, convent-girl types who, as in 'Bells for Her', once shared secrets under blankets, but who now 'go at each other like blank ettes (sic) who can't find their thread and their bare', which has to be the most precious lyric of this and several other years.

A great deal of imagination has gone into the backings, which mix prepared piano, string arrangements, atonal guitar and industrial rhythm loops with a rhythm section that matches drummer Carlo Nuccio with ex-Meters bassist George Porter Jr; but as with her lyrics, Amos doesn't know when to soft-pedal, and the result is usually over-embroidered, rococo arrangements which never seem to stop changing. The most successful piece, overall, is the hit single 'Cornflake Girl', which, it's claimed, adapts Alice Walker's classification of female types into cornflake girls and raisin girls: here, verses of mysterious reproach are riven by octave vocal swoops akin to early Kate Bush, with Merry Clayton offering a counterpoint rap on the coda.

The least successful has to be 'Space Dog', which tilts over from introspective rumination into an impenetrable personal world peopled by characters with names like Andromeda, Lemon Pie and Colonel Dirtyfishydishcloth. Alas, I was not empowered to understand it.

(Photographs omitted)