POP / Albums: Throw the man a fish

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SEAL

Seal

ZTT 4509-96256-2

CONFUSINGLY eponymous as its predecessor - who does he think he is, Peter Gabriel? - Seal's second album is the singer's What's Going On?, a manifesto of concern set to sophisticated, soothing backings. At its simplest, 'People Asking Why' gives straightforward voice to communal confusion, while 'Dreaming in Metaphors' suggests the more introspective aspects of Seal's worries.

Seal the second continues the soundbite lyrical style of his debut, with iffy lines like 'Time is the space between me and you' lent weight by Trevor Horn's characteristically dense, layered production. The sound is, if anything, warmer and more pervasive than before, but so full that where once Seal's voice soared, here it sometimes sounds trapped, swaddled in soft cushioning.

This is particularly the case on 'Fast Changes' and 'Kiss from a Rose'. The latter sets Seal's Crosby, Stills & Nash- style multitracked harmonies against an Olde Englishe arrangement featuring piano, strings and oboe, while the former alternates between a relaxed Western style and more hurried, Arabic-flavoured passages. It's here, though, that Seal's talent shines through the brightest, his layered vocals acquiring something of the meditative, philosophical aspect of Marvin Gaye's on 'Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)', unassertive but with an implacable graceful dignity.

FRANK BLACK

Teenager of the Year

4AD DAD4009CD

THERE'S a decent album struggling to get out of Teenager of the Year, but it's trapped by all the dross surrounding it. At 22 tracks, Frank seriously over-estimates the quality of much of this material, though at its best - the whimsical '(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain' and the Dylanesque drawl-pop of the single 'Headache' - it's as good as anything he's done solo or fronting the Pixies.

Lyrically, the standard Black methods predominate. Even when singing about the most mundane of concerns, there's a veneer of science fiction giving the material an enigmatic spin, and often songs will be launched on the flimsiest of puns or memories. 'Whatever Happened to Pong?' reminisces about the earliest of video-games, while 'Abstract Plain' turns cute tricks around painterly metaphors, its reference to being 'painted in plein-air' only one example of an abundance of verbal trickery - elsewhere, Frank uses the term 'romaunt', rhymes 'potlatch' with 'sasquatch', and caps the most nonsensical of verses with the chorus 'I superabound / But I still got nothing to do'.

Musically, Frank's operating on too many fronts to retain any sense of unity to the album. It's full of tactics, but utterly lacking strategy, preferring instead to offer a series of distorted-mirror takes on other artists' styles. Frank's production collaborator, the keyboard whiz Eric Drew Feldman, is joined by another Captain Beefheart alumnus, the guitarist Jeff Morris Tepper, adding a lunatic precision to some of the guitar riffs. At half the length, this would be a classic album; as it is, it's just bloated.

BEASTIE BOYS

Ill Communication

Capitol CDEST 2229

THE BEASTIES have come on in leaps and bounds since their early incarnation as horny, beery little lads: Ill Communication continues the direction taken on 1992's Check Your Head, with the Boys playing instruments alongside their samples - Adam (MCA) Yauch's double-bass lines are particularly tasty - on a series of funk-rap tracks which, in true old- school hip-hop manner, prize immediacy over precision.

The abrasive feel, especially on the vocals, spoils some of the tracks, though aside from a couple of tracks on which Yauch espouses environmental concerns in Buddhist terms, the raps are barely worth bothering with other than as rhythmic elements. As the album proceeds - it's another 20-track monster - the vocal tracks are increasingly outnumbered by loose, noodling funk-jam instrumentals, like the electric piano-led jazz shuffle 'Ricky's Theme' and electric violin showcase 'Eugeneus Lament'. They've yet to learn the full value of sparseness in this type of music. It's still their most purely enjoyable album so far, though.

THE FUTURE SOUND OF LONDON

Lifeforms

Virgin CDV 2722

A DOUBLE-CD of high- quality ambient soundscaping in the Sabres / Fluke / Orb mode, bare of vocal landmarks and stingy with hooks and riffs, but satisfying none the less. These tracks utilise a liquid, organic blend of electronics and found- sound elements, painting with a range of everyday sounds - cars, birds, water, wind, etc - to free the sound from its source meaning.

'Cascade' opens the album, a condensed version of the recent 25-minute single in which twangs of Japanese koto, breaths of flute, echoey electronic zaps and sundry drones assemble themselves into a semblance of order, while, in 'Domain', a similar type of ambient collage blows over a glassy, synthesised version of Pachelbel's Canon. But whether offering yawning space-travelogues like 'Omnipresence', or three-dimensional dance-dubs like 'Room 208', FSOL always deal with a dense weave of moods, manipulating sounds in pursuit of changing emotions. Unburdened by lyrical anchors, these tracks can switch direction in the blink of an eye, flashing from the idyllic and pastoral to more menacing moods. As volatile as humans, they almost justify their titular definition as lifeforms.

(Photograph omitted)

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