POP MUSIC / Albums: Upside down and turn around

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SPIN DOCTORS - Turn It Upside Down (Epic 476886 2)

The Spin Doctors are a group capable, on tracks like this album's 'Bags of Dirt', of releasing the most deeply interred memories of the worst excesses of Seventies muso complacency: all that musicianly prowess, that technique so finger-bloodyingly acquired, for this? Like many musicians, they seem obsessed with the 'how' of their occupation, when what really needs rationalising is the 'why'.

As with their earlier releases, Turn It Upside Down contains the same kind of undemanding country-rock boogie which allowed a rash of American bands (and one or two British) to make an indecently good living in the Seventies, and which the Grateful Dead have applied with enduring career viability ever since. There are moments here when the Doctors suggest they might be about to launch off on a Dead-style jamming journey, but they always end up slipping into the kind of showy, 'jazzy' noodling which kills listener interest stone dead.

VARIOUS ARTISTS - The OKeh Rhythm & Blues Story 1949-1957 (Epic/OKeh E3K 48912); The Sue Records Story: New York City, The Sound of Soul (EMI SUEBOX 1)

As the industry settles into its traditional summer fallow period, reissues are being readied to fill the gaps in record companies' release schedules - a Who box set is imminent, and a substantial Stones reissue series is already upon us. These two box sets offer rather more exotic fare, more modest compilations of two lesser-known but crucial American companies.

A subsidiary of CBS, OKeh was one of the original 'race records' labels which served the black music market in pre-war America, and flourished after the Second World War. This three-disc set covers this post-war era, though perhaps in less detail than might be desired - no Big Joe Williams, for instance. Most of the other big-name bases are covered, however, from the pre-rock'n'roll jump band the Treniers, solo stars such as Larry Darnell, Big Maybelle and Chuck Willis, jazz acts like Red Rodney, and bandleaders like Paul Gayten.

By the time OKeh shut up shop in 1957, the R & B scene was dominated by a forest of small labels, each hoping to break local hits on a wider national scale, the most famous being Berry Gordy's Motown operation. Sue Records was set up by bored real-estate agent Juggy Murray in 1957, and could reasonably lay claim to being the model for Gordy's subsequent business, charting as it does the passage from R & B to what we know as 'soul' music.

There are signs that Murray used the productions that Gordy at that time leased to labels like United Artists and Chess as the template for his own sound: Juggy's earliest success, the catch-throated tenor Bobby Hendricks is a dead ringer for Marv Johnson on songs like 'Itchy Twitchy Feeling' and 'Psycho', the latter a Clyde McPhatter novelty song which casts the hapless Hendricks as a burbling lad driven mad with love, being counselled by a deep-voiced shrink.

Murray's biggest successes, though, came from two duos, Inez & Charlie Foxx, of 'Mockingbird' fame, and Ike & Tina Turner, whose recordings here still stand head and shoulders above most of the rest of the label's output. Substantial portions of this four-CD set are given over to productions by Ike Turner, the much-maligned, wayward genius who presided over the birth of rock 'n' roll from R & B, and here does much the same for raw-boned soul. For his contributions alone, this box would constitute a worthy investment.

CHANNEL LIGHT VESSEL - Automatic (All Saints ASCD19); - ANDY PARTRIDGE &

HAROLD BUDD - Through the Hill (All Saints ASCD21)

The All Saints label is becoming the home for rehabilitated art- rockers, by the look of it: XTC's Andy Partridge is working more to new-age pioneer Harold Budd's specifications than the other way round, while Channel Light Vessel features former Bebop Deluxe mainman Bill Nelson in a more relaxed guise.

CLV, in fact, are something of a new-age Pentangle, covering virtually all bases, timbrally speaking, with a line-up that matches Nelson's discreet, heavily sustained guitar figures with Roger Eno's keyboards, Kate St John's reeds, Mayumi Tachibana's cello and Laraaji's kalimba and zither. Compared to the avant-garde ructions of the Orb album, though, the tinges of Celtic whimsy and English pastorale - the latter courtesy of St John's wistful cor anglais - seem polite and parochial, lifestyle obligations rather than musical experiments, while the narcoleptic pace of their pieces wipes their landscapes clear of life.

The Partridge / Budd project deals more in Music for Films-style atmospheres and textures, with the music leaning towards the precious minimalist chamber-jazz of the ECM label: a few notes, a cluster of chords, and the sustain pedal held down to let you hear the room reverberate. It's pleasant, as so much of this kind of thing is, but its wisps of melody evaporate almost instantly: it's music without weight or momentum.

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