POP MUSIC / Albums: Twin sets but not many pearls

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The Proclaimers - Hit the Highway (Chrysalis CDCHR 6066)

CRAIG and Charlie Reid were just about to release this third album last year when suddenly the use of 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' in the Johnny Depp romance Benny and Joon belatedly hoisted the single up the American charts. The album from which it was taken, Sunshine on Leith, sold a cool million on the back of it. A year of emergency touring postponed the release of the follow-up even further, until all of six years had elapsed between albums. So while we have all but forgotten about them, they have never been bigger in global terms.

The six years have, naturally, seen changes. Where Sunshine on Leith had something of a country-rock feel, Hit the Highway draws more on R&B, blues and gospel flavours, and ructions on the domestic front have filtered through to their material. So the lyrics modulate from the romantic certitude of the opening 'Let's Get Married' (not the Al Green number, alas) to the marital disharmony of 'Shout Shout' and the bickering of the concluding 'Don't Turn Out Like Your Mother'. Pete Wingfield's production is clean and tidy, particularly effective on the funky Southern syncopation of 'Follow the Money', but the brothers come a cropper when they attempt 'These Arms of Mine'. The song that established Otis Redding's reputation gets the swaying, anthemic treatment, and it becomes clear that soul singing is alien to them: their enunciation and harmonies are too formal. It's a brave attempt, but it's not really happening.

Saint Etienne - Tiger Bay (Heavenly HVNLP8CD)

TIGER Bay stands in relation to modern pop music roughly as the kind of ersatz pop heard in Swinging Sixties movies stood to the pop music of that decade: an anaemic approximation of young persons' music, drained of energy by its tepid pursuit of irony. Most of the 12 tracks are little more than sketches for songs, and there's barely anything for the remixers to get their teeth into, just a few wisps of melody and texture organised into a vague semblance of incidental music. Few of the tracks feature vocals, and when they do - as in the case of the single 'Pale Movie' - the shortcomings of Sarah Cracknell's fey, sugary vocals are cruelly shown up. The result is an album entirely composed of what sound like soundtrack fragments from a paralysingly dull film.

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works Volume II (Warp CD21); Richard H Kirk - Virtual State (Warp CD19)

RICHARD D James, aka the Aphex Twin, has got a delay unit, and boy, is he going to use it. The hall-of-mirrors effect engendered by liberal employment of echo and reverb effects pervades the second volume of his Selected Ambient Works, a triple-album (double-CD) of electronic music which we may be thankful was truncated from the intended five-album set.

The 24 tracks making up the two discs have no titles, just blurry photos of textures to 'describe' them. Some are gently rippling bathing music.; Most aim for space-noir atmospheres, their tones of spooky desolation suggesting more suicidal leanings; good for drowning to, perhaps. He's been compared to Mozart, but James's pure-sound aesthetic places him closer to avant-garde composers like Stockhausen and Nono than to most of his ambient-house colleagues. His minimalist approach, however, means this is music for creative humming - the listener has to add his / her own personal melody lines and harmonies if some of these pieces are not to disappear completely into the wallpaper. Nice, but not naughty enough.

The music and methods of Richard H Kirk, better-known as one half of avant-rock pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, are superficially similar to the Aphex Twin's, but they have roots in the mulch of Seventies electronic experimentation, which means he reached the stage Richard James is at now many years ago.

Accordingly, he's accumulated a wider palette of tones and textures than James, and is less fascinated with the simple facts of randomness and repetition: the pieces on Virtual State are honed and edited, rather than allowed to form almost by accident. They may be gentle, but there's a greater sense of volition rather than drift; the progressively interlocking electronic rhythms and sparingly used vocal and percussion samples furnishing more of a narrative drive. The distant African chants looping away in 'Freezone' and 'Soul Catcher' lend emotional colour to what might otherwise be Kraftwerk-pure electronic compositions. He's been doing this sort of thing better than anybody else for years with Cabaret Voltaire, but uses the method here much less obstreperously than before: the track ambles up to you, rather than confronting you chin-to-chin. Like the album as a whole, it's amiably enigmatic, rather than oppositional.