POP MUSIC / Albums: Days of whine and roses

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ERIC CLAPTON - From The Cradle (Reprise 9362-45735-2)

ANOTHER albumful of period blues covers, From The Cradle is the electric equivalent of the Unplugged album which so revitalised Clapton's career a couple of years back. It effectively mirrors the migration of the blues from the rural south to the urban north, as post-war prosperity drew its practitioners out of poverty. To best represent that movement, Clapton has retained the rootsy, one-take ambience and musicological slant of the Unplugged album, but restored the spine-tingling intensity of his electric guitar-playing - which is, ultimately, what fans want from their Eric.

Clapton has always been the most assiduous of blues students, emulating and appropriating the guitar styles of the great black bluesmen with aplomb. His slide-guitar on 'Blues Before Sunrise' and 'It Hurts Me Too', for instance, is raw and dirty, an exact copy of Elmore James's piercing tone. His mimetic skills are less well-honed when it comes to his singing, though, and his vocals here frequently sound forced by comparison.

It's an enjoyable collection of standards nonetheless, dripping with liquid, mathematical solos and sympathetic accompaniment from a stellar session-crew which includes Jim Keltner, Chris Stainton and Andy Fairweather-Low; though at times the note-for-note accuracy of Clapton's copies leans dangerously close to pedantry: it's one thing employing Muddy Waters' last great harmonica-player Jerry Portnoy, but another thing entirely to copy the great man's phrasing right down to the line 'Gonna make pretty womens (sic) jump and shout'.

SINEAD O'CONNOR - Universal Mother (Ensign CD CHEN 34)

IN THE past few years, Sinead O'Connor has racked up almost as many broken retirement promises as the Who, sulkily threatening never to perform or record again whenever some upstart critic or member of the record-buying public has the temerity to point out the deeply flawed nature of her work or world view, only to 'relent' shortly afterwards and foist another indigestible lump of her personal traumas upon the world.

Universal Mother is the latest, and what a self-pityingly patronising piece of work it is, from the title and the silly Germaine Greer quote that opens the album, through the supposedly soul-baring scraps of lyrical flotsam and anaemic dribbles of music which pass for songs, to the pseudo-historical diatribe about the Irish famine. The pervasive air of persecution sits uneasily with the interminable claims of maternal contentment, ranging from the mumbo-jumbo of 'All Babies', which presumptuously claims that 'all babies are born saying God's name', to the frankly nauseating sentimentality of 'My Darling Child' - though even that is trumped by 'Am I a Human?', the boy-child Jake's very own 20-second contribution. Unfortunately, Sinead's is a voice devoid of affection, more attuned by habit to scolding than soothing, which rather spikes her implicit claim upon Madonna-hood. The overwhelming impression is of someone so deluded by the appeal of her own celebrity that she's in danger of completely losing the plot. I'm sure we're all delighted for her and everything, but heavens, is that really the time? I must be going . . .

ROBERT PALMER - Honey (EMI CDEMD 1069)

ROBERT PALMER gives the impression of having a damn good time on our behalf, dressing in the best clothes, living the jet-set life and generally having a ball in relaxed and stylish manner. There he is on the cover of Honey, smirkingly receiving the ruby-red lipular attentions of some long-lashed model girl, while on the actual album itself he's at home in Milan, having fun pushing his personal pop-appeal envelope about as far as he dare, with a series of bizarre pop / rock constructions which test the boundaries of commerciality quite severely.

Palmer opens the album in typically perverse manner, with a gentle confection of marimba, humming and tribal chanting ('Honey A') which segues into the more Caribbean-flavoured frolic of 'Honey B'. The world tour continues with the Astrud Gilberto-flavoured 'Honeymoon', while more contemporary modes are touched on in a hard-rock cover of Devo's 'Girl U Want' and a 'Wham Bam Boogie' which attempts to cross rockabilly with Italian house and heavy-metal guitar (from Extreme's Nuno Bettencourt). Diverse, eclectic, obsessive and ambitious, it's the kind of album which shames more supposedly innovative artists, taking wild risks without losing that essential sense of Palmer style. What could be more fun?

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