POP / Albums: Sassy lasses and a sad lad

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The Independent Online
QUEEN LATIFAH

Black Reign

(Motown 530 272-2)

7669

7669 East from a Bad Block

(Motown 530 284-2)

BLACK female artists are assailed by an obligation to serve as role models that doesn't operate on their male colleagues with anything like the same firmness. As artist manager, record label head and now star of her own TV sitcom, Living Single, the rapper Queen Latifah shoulders her responsibilities bravely, continuing to offer a staunch response to gangsta-rap slackness in songs like 'U N I T Y', which tells her sisters 'You gotta let him know / You ain't a bitch or a 'ho.' Elsewhere, in 'Coochie Bang' she offers smart safer- sex advice, and in 'Superstar' outlines her disdain for swollen-headed male preening.

All very righteous, certainly, but when it comes to the more romantic tracks, the impression is one of uncertainty: she tells the subject of 'Weekend Love' she 'didn't mean to turn you on', and even on an out-and-out sex song like 'Mood Is Right', there's a reluctance which doesn't seem to affect her Motown label-mates 7669 in the least.

Combining the styles and attitudes of En Vogue and Salt 'n' Pepa, with a dash of ragga- girl explicitness and their own bad-girl touches thrown in, this quartet of rapper-singers offer the most up-front expression yet of the new salaciousness. Tracks like 'Heree Ah Cumm' and '69 Ways to Love a (Black) Man' leave little to the imagination, and the girls compound the impression with between-songs snatches of sassy conversation. There's nothing new, however, about their harmony-vocal style on songs like 'Joy' and 'Changes', which is like a less accomplished En Vogue.

NINE INCH NAILS

The Downward Spiral

(Island CID 8012)

TRENT REZNOR, who is Nine Inch Nails, hasn't exactly progressed from his debut, Pretty Hate Machine, which summarised the basic themes that recur with depressing familiarity on this latest release: pain, obsession, repression, disease and degradation.

Musically, it continues the style developed by the French punk group Metal Urbain, whose combination of drum- machine pulses and buzzsaw guitars inspired the Jesus And Mary Chain and continues to define the entire 'industrial' genre, except that the riffs have now been reduced to the metronomic perfection of samples. This album has the advantage of being produced by Flood and mixed by Alan Moulder, who helped the Mary Chain to their most focused distillations of rock classicism.

The Downward Spiral opens with what sounds like someone being flogged; the sampled whipcracks speed up until they're the rhythm of the first track, 'Mr Self Destruct', a typical NIN ode to obsession and addiction - 'I give you all you need to know / I drag you down, I use you up'. Elsewhere, Reznor considers sex and violence, the death of God, and possession from the possessee's point of view, ending up contemplating suicide, which sounds as if it would come as a merciful release for both artist and audience.

'I Do Not Want This' suggests he's powerless to prevent his possession by such sleazy interests. But surely, if he really didn't want this, he wouldn't have recorded the album at 10050 Cielo Drive, location of the Manson Family murders. Doubtless Trent is already scouting suitable properties in the Gloucester area for his next release.

TIM BUCKLEY

Live at the Troubador 1969

(Edsel EDCD 400)

FRED NEIL

Everybody's Talkin' - Theme from 'Midnight Cowboy'

(Rev-Ola CREV 021 CD)

IT'S extraordinary that the singer-songwriter Tim Buckley never released a live album during his lifetime: as with other great improvisers like Hendrix and Coltrane the stage was a launch-pad for new ideas and inflections to try out on his five-octave voice. These posthumous live releases belatedly fill in the huge stylistic gaps that separated his albums.

There is an immense gulf between the relaxed folk-jazz of the Dream Letter set, recorded in London in July 1968, and Live at the Troubador 1969, on which he teeters upon the verge of the free-form vocalisations of the Starsailor album, using jazz methods to stretch the folk-rock style he'd begun with a few years earlier. The songs are getting longer - 14, even 16 minutes - and more conversational, Buckley adding a crooning edge to the talking-blues form. His band, beefed up with Zappa / Beefheart drummer Art Tripp, has more of a jazz pulse driving it, too, particularly on 'Venice Mating Call', an instrumental featuring the characteristic clanky marimba that Tripp brought to the Magic Band. Buckley introduces it with a joke alternative title, 'All We Are Saying Is Give Smack a Chance', which is the kind of hostage to fortune no career needs (he died of an accidental overdose a few years later).

One of the main influences on Buckley - and on most other singer-songwriters of the Sixties - was the folk-blues singer Fred Neil. His languid baritone and air of weary melancholy - very much a white boy's blues - are well to the fore on this reissue of the second (and best) of his four albums, a 1966 set which includes his two best-known songs, 'The Dolphins' and 'Everybody's Talkin' '. Despite the success of the latter, however, Neil quit New York and the music business for good in 1971, unlike Buckley escaping the payback on an allegedly excessive lifestyle.

WILLIE NELSON

Moonlight Becomes You

(Columbia COL 475945 2)

THIS easy-listening collection of romantic standards, bookended by a couple of Willie's own songs, seems a conservative way to build upon the crossover success of last year's star-studded Across the Borderline. With lounge-jazz settings to the fore, Nelson can't disguise his lack of interest on inoffensive toe-tappers like 'Sentimental Journey' and supposedly smoochsome fare like the title-track. Frank Loesser's 'Have I Stayed Away Too Long' transfers well to country-weepie mode, and 'You'll Never Know' fits him better than most of these songs, but overall his classic country-conversational style leaves him too distant from the blander material.

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