POP / ALBUMS: The long and the short of it

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EDDI READER

Eddi Reader

(Blanco Y Negro 4509-96177-2)

HAVING broadened her CV with a TV series and theatrical work, Eddi Reader returns to the musical fray with an album of consummate poise but strictly observed stylistic parameters, running the short distance from folk-rock to soft-rock and back again. While there are clear parallels in sound and style to Kirsty MacColl - who co-writes one of the 12 songs - Eddi Reader casts the former Fairground Attraction singer more as the Judy Collins or Sandy Denny of her day, an interpreter of taste and understated emotion at her best on material specially written or adapted for her talents, mainly by old FA colleague Mark E Nevin.

At its best, this second solo outing approaches the Aimee Mann blend of highly-crafted pop sensibility and sincere / ironic delivery on 'Joke', one of several songs written by Boo Hewerdine, while Reader's own 'East of Us' builds up a mood of fatalistic intensity whose closest parallel is with the more morbidly anthemic end of Procol Harum's oeuvre. Less enticing is the Nevin / MacColl composition 'Dear John', which is a little too pleased with its epistolary conceit: there's not much more here than the initial idea, dealt with competently but complacently. The same could be said of the album as a whole, though the underwhelming niceness of it all is occasionally illuminated by a spark of daring, as when she concludes 'Scarecrow' with a bout of layered harmonising of Wilsonian ambition. A little more of this kind of daring (and a little less comfortable careerism) wouldn't go amiss.

YOUSSOU N'DOUR

The Guide (Wommat)

(Columbia COL 476508 2)

MANU DIBANGO

Wakafrika

(Blue Music BLM 001)

IT HAS become difficult for even the biggest African stars to expand their crossover potential in the West much beyond the hard core of African music fans. Part of the problem is the inherent nature of the Western 'world music' audience, which tends to prize rootsy, folky authenticity over sophistication, leaving the more ambitious artists, like Salif Keita and Youssou N'Dour, over a barrel when they release complex, jazz-inflected albums.

N'Dour's The Guide (Wommat), a 73-minute whopper of an album, is a case in point. Featuring crisply crafted songs of hope and regret and edifying parables of tribal life, it's not short of good material, but the arrangements are so dense and enervating they drain away the songs' power. The playing, as you'd expect, is of the highest order, but there's often little focus, musically - the instruments are all fighting for space on a track like 'Generations', rather than sublimating themselves to the common good - suggesting that N'Dour might profit from an outside producer.

For N'Dour, Western collaboration has allowed the muso virus to infect his work, to its detriment. At its worst, this entails Branford Marsalis's anodyne sax part applying the last desiccated (but perhaps appropriate) touch of sterility to 'Without A Smile', a song about leaving parched land for the more fertile urban fringes; better, but still unsatisfying, is the Neneh Cherry duet '7 Seconds', which seems caught between two continents and ends up sounding like a particularly creepy Phil Collins atmosphere, which surely can't have been the intention.

Along with Fela Kuti and Hugh Masekela, saxophonist Manu Dibango can lay claim to being one of the initial popularisers of African music outside the continent, his afro-funk anthem 'Soul Makossa' becoming a huge world-wide hit in the early Seventies. Since then, he's effectively parlayed the one tune into an entire career, regularly issuing new versions and retaining the tune as the centrepiece of his live set. Wakafrika contains yet another version, this one featuring Youssou N'Dour on vocals, the first of a stream of guests collaborating on a collection of African music standards ranging from 'Wimoweh' (with Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and Fela's 'Lady' to Peter Gabriel's 'Biko' and Paul Simon's 'Homeless'.

Apart from those latter-day musical saints Gabriel and Sinead, the guest-list is a roll- call of virtually every significant African musical celebrity, from the long- established likes of Salif Keita and King Sunny Ade to newer stars such as Angelique Kidjo and Geoffrey Oryema, while those not there in fact (such as Fela and Miriam Makeba) are present in spirit via the covers of their songs. Much of the album's success is due to the ease with which the versatile Dibango adapts his simple, repeated sax phrases to fit the style of whoever he's working with (on 'Lady', his tribute even extends to a creditable impression of Fela's majestic, declamatory vocal style), leaving the experienced George Acogny to apply the production focus that binds it all together. Wakafrika's not without its mistakes - the reggaefied 'Wimoweh' is a little too cute, and the Salif Keita duet 'Emma' suffers from a slightly muddled jazziness - but in the main Dibango profits from keeping things fairly simple, relying on well-sculpted grooves whose relaxed, uncluttered aspect lends them a power lacking on N'Dour's album.

OZRIC TENTACLES

Arborescence

(Dovetail DOVE CD 7)

THE Ozrics may have built up their following from the grass-roots by assiduous festival gigging, but the opening track to Arborescence, 'Astro Cortex', indicates their current direction: this is stadium rock, albeit of a cosmic dimension, a merging of thumping great guitar riffs with synthesiser bleeps and squiggles that has remained relatively unchanged since Space Ritual days. 'Yog-Bar- Og', which follows, is even more routine, though 'Al- Salooq' stirs a few ethnic flavours and dub techniques into the prog-rock stew. 'There's a Planet Here' uses dubbed drum and flute sounds to conjure up a slowly swirling space-scape, before 'Shima Koto' rounds things off with an echoey, space-hopping tour de force, hardly a sound neglecting to repeat itself into the far distance. It's pleasant enough in its own way, but one gets the impression that for the Ozrics, this stuff comes by the yard.

(Photograph omitted)

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