POP / This week's new albums

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ANITA BAKER

Rhythm of Love

(Elektra 7559-61555-2)

GLADYS KNIGHT

Just For You

(MCA MCD 10946)

ANITA Baker's first new album in four years, Rhythm of Love contains a better balance of home-grown and store- bought material than 1990's Compositions, with co-producer and arranger Barry Eastmond the main collaborator on her five self-written tracks. The rest of the album is the preserve of names like Bacharach, David, Rodgers and Hart, though once Baker's finished with a song - even whiskery chestnuts like 'The Look of Love' and 'My Funny Valentine' - it's become several shades more difficult for others to cover in the future.

This is sweat-free soul music with the kinks ironed out, every phrase and inflection carefully calculated to the last breath. It's as close as soul gets to opera, an impression compounded by her phrasing: there's a hauteur to her voice that cools any ardour in the soul. You almost feel ashamed for not being sophisticated enough for her.

Gladys Knight's second solo album is a little easier on the ego, though she too leans heavily towards the cabaret circuit on the concluding live medley of 'If You Don't Know Me by Now' and 'End of the Road'. Unlike Anita's album, though, Just For You isn't entirely given over to smooth-soul balladry; producers like Jam & Lewis, Attala Zane Giles and swingbeat icon Babyface have fitted her out with contemporary beats and songs. And for those who miss her former backing group, the backing- vocal trio she's assembled for the soft shuffle groove of 'I'll Fall in Love if You Hang Around' - Johnny Gill, Bebe Winans and Howard Hewett - makes a more than adequate set of Pips by proxy.

AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB

San Francisco

(Virgin CDV 2752)

AMERICAN Music Club singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel has accrued a reputation for misanthropic melancholy to equal that of Leonard Cohen - though, like Cohen's, the misery is wielded with full awareness of its own absurdity. The songs on San Francisco are precise articulations of Eitzel's own existential torture, done with a subtle poeticism and gallows humour far removed from the simpleton nihilism of grunge. 'I never had a lot to bring to the party,' he admits in 'How Many Six-Packs Does it Take to Screw in a Light?', 'but a self-importance far beyond vanity / and a manic depression that just wouldn't go away. / Like Peckinpah with a bouquet of poison ivy.'

If you're in the mood for a little self-mocking misanthropy, AMC have got it down to a fine art: San Francisco is better even than the excellent Mercury, Eitzel's colleagues refining further their subtle accompaniments with a shard of trumpet here and a backward guitar break there, and Bruce Kaphan's miasmic, distorted pedal-steel guitar wrapping its warm curls round Eitzel's melancholy in a way which would shock most country-music players.

SPEARHEAD

Home

(Capitol CDEST 2236)

HIS NEW seven-piece group finds rapper Michael Franti less like the Senior Lecturer figure of his Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy records, but getting more relaxed in a down-home soul-funk manner which bears similarities with Sly Stone's later work. At a guess, he's heard and digested the lessons of Arrested Development, who dealt with much the same issues as Hiphoprisy, but in a more amenable, rootsy way.

Franti is closer to the city street than the rural backwater, though. When he considers homelessness, in 'Hole in the Bucket', it's more a rumination upon altruism than the rose-tinted view of 'Mr Wendal'; and there's a straightforwardness about the Aids song 'Positive' - about getting tested before undertaking a relationship - that's more about real life than idealism. In a nutshell, Spearhead is more praxis, compared to Hiphoprisy's ideology.

Musically, Franti relies on producer Joe 'the Butcher' Nicolo (engineer on Cypress Hill, House of Pain and Goats albums) to ensure the grooves are more user-friendly than before, with funky clarinets, electric pianos and curlicues of wah-wah guitar creating an updated Seventies funk sound fit to set alongside the contemporary G-Funk style. A veritable family of other voices adds rich character to the songs, though in places the blend is a little overcooked - Mary Harris's soul histrionics, effective in small spurts, get tiresome when larded all over the tracks.

KYLIE MINOGUE

Kylie Minogue

(Deconstruction 74321 22749 2)

CLEARLY intended as a pitch for a more 'mature' market profile - check the specs she sports on the sleeve, just waiting to be removed in a 'Why Miss Minogue, you're beautiful' scenario - Kylie's new album is just a blind following of bland pop-soul mores, neatly produced but adding little to what we already know of her character and abilities. Always a hand-me- down Cliff to Madonna's Elvis, she tries out a few Erotica moves here, like the soft-focus sensuality of 'Falling' and the would-be sultriness of 'Dangerous Game', but it still sounds like a little girl playing dress-up in mummy's fish-net stockings.

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