POP MUSIC / Albums: Old dogs with old tricks

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Vauxhall And I

(Parlophone CDPCSD 148)

THE MOST instantly notable thing about Vauxhall And I is how serene it sounds, after the frisky glam-a-billy riffing of Your Arsenal. The late Mick Ronson's tartly powerful settings for that album have been replaced here by a more sedate production from Steve Lillywhite, which matches perfectly the material's mood of reproachful resignation.

There are familiar themes and obsessions on display here, but they're tackled with more assurance and maturity than before. Even the standard self- pitying wallow, 'I Am Hated for Loving', contains an acknowledgment of the inevitable self-centredness of the lonely - though how that squares with the simple truth of 'Hold On to Your Friends' is open to question. With regard to the latter, doubtless the recent deaths of Ronson and Morrissey's manager Nigel Thomas have had a drastic effect on the singer's world-view, though he's lost none of his native suspicion. 'Some men here, they have a special interest in your career,' he sings on 'Why Don't You Find Out for Yourself', one of the album's spikier songs, 'They wanna help you to grow, and then siphon all your dough.'

The glamorous glue this time round is provided by the 'loafing oafs in all-night chemists' who inhabit the opening song 'Now My Heart Is Full'. They're indicative of the almost Gilbert & Georgian interest Morrissey seems to take in the fire and energy of dissolute working-class youth, an interest which continues through 'Billy Budd' and 'Spring- Heeled Jim', in which the passing of Jim's youthful vibrancy is related against a backdrop of broad cockney- laddo voices discussing the old ultra-violence.

There are a few lazy echoes of the earlier Morrissey, notably 'Used to Be a Sweet Boy' and 'The Lazy Sunbathers', a castigation of complacency which is itself complacent; but they're more than counterbalanced by the excellent 'Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning', in which we view the mini-drama contained in the title through the refracting lens of that peculiar romantic irony he's made his own. 'It was only a test, but she swam too far against the tide,' he croons with dry detachment, 'she deserves all she gets'.


Brutal Youth

(Warner Bros 9362-45535-2)

BRUTAL YOUTH has already been acclaimed as a return to form following several fallow years - 'The Beard Years', as Costello has dubbed them. He has taken recourse in the old Attractions line-up of Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas (this last replaced on some tracks by Nick Lowe), settling into a comfy sofa whose cushions have long since assumed the shape of Elvis's muse. If you prefer Costello's Attractions albums to his subsequent solo work, you'll probably like this one too - though it demands a preference for stylistic mannerisms over the Tom Waits- ian textural diversity of an album like Spike.

Thus, tracks like 'Clown Strike' apply all the little R & B flourishes, but fail to impress an R & B unity upon the song. The idiosyncratic production style doesn't help: songs such as 'Rocking Horse Road' feature individually interesting elements, from Pete Thomas especially, but they've been bolted together like Meccano, with all the little nuts and bolts showing. I'd say they sounded like demos, but most demos at least sound like a band. This rarely sounds that focused, and certainly nothing like The Attractions - it sounds, frankly, like three or four guys who don't play together for fun any more.

The material is much the same, for the most part featuring a cast of deficient characters shuffling by to take their verbal lashing from Costello. Whether they are involved in the political expediency of '20 Per Cent Amnesia', or the sordid rape and murder scenario of 'Kinder Murder', or the fringe sexuality of '13 Steps Lead Down', they all come under his acid gaze. But they're all his own invention, a self-made world that seems to exert an almost pornographic fascination. Or maybe he's just happiest when spreading unhappiness around. 'This is hell, this is hell, I am sorry to tell you,' he croons happily at one point, 'It never gets better or worse.' Well, thanks. Now tell us something we don't already know.


Rhythm, Country and Blues

(MCA MCAD-10965)

SOMETIMES, a good idea on paper turns out to be a good idea in fact, too. That's the case with this album pairing country and soul artists in a series of classic soul and country songs. There has always been a clear correspondence between the two disciplines: country music offers white folk direct articulations of emotion more naturally dealt with in R & B.

Check out Travis Tritt's duet with Patti Labelle on the Sam & Dave slow-burner 'When Something Is Wrong with My Baby', or especially George Jones, providing the catch-in-the-throat chorus to B B King's narration on 'Patches'. Under Don Was's expert hand, most of these duets have been carefully chosen for stylistic congruence between artists and material: Trisha Yearwood matches Aaron Neville, melismatic catch for catch, on a blissful 'I Fall to Pieces', while Natalie Cole and Reba McEntire indulge in a stops-out showboating duel on 'Since I Fell for You'.

Along with the Jones & King duet, though, the standout track has to be Al Green and Lyle Lovett's gentle shuffle-funk reading of Willie Nelson's 'Funny How Time Slips Away': Lovett's weary rasp slips so easily into soul mode - but then he's always had a more adventurous approach than most country artists - while the ecstatic Reverend Al is as quicksilver here as he's been in years.