ROCK ALBUMS / Back-street strolling: Andy Gill on tributes to Don Covay and John Cage, and the latest from a modest Michael Penn and lukewarm Art Garfunkel

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Back to the Streets - Celebrating the Music of Don Covay

(Shanachie 9006)

A Tribute to John Cage

(Koch International 3-7238-2 Y6x2)

BACK to the Streets is from the same team that put together the Curtis Mayfield tribute album People Get Ready, and is likewise well thought- out. Don Covay was responsible for some of the more memorable R&B songs of the Sixties - 'Chain of Fools' and 'See Saw' - and it's an indication of his material's quality that most of those involved here have been able to adapt his muse to their needs without any grinding of gears. 'He Don't Know' becomes a natural for Robert Cray's urbane soul blues style, while Bobby Womack stretches 'Checkin' Out' into one of his usual relaxed soul sermons. Iggy Pop's rendering of 'Sookie Sookie', meanwhile, is if anything even more greasy than the Steppenwolf hit version.

The project is underpinned by a studio aggregation closely resembling Paul Shaffer's Late Show with David Letterman house band, augmented by Noel Redding and Living Colour, which means that riffs are locked down tight while Vernon Reid is on hand to daub a little guitar extremity when necessary. In general, the deep soul covers are the most ably presented, the likes of Ben E King and Nona Hendryx slipping into the material as if it were tailored specially for them, but unfortunately the choicest items have gone to such as Ron Wood and Billy Squier.

Oddly, nobody chooses to do Covay's early Seventies classic, the rollicking 'It's Better to Have and Not Need', which means that top honours go to Barrence Whitfield, who gets right to the raucous heart of 'Pony Time', which in Chubby Checker's hands became Covay's first hit composition.

John Cage never had a hit in anyone's hands, and the double-CD tribute A Chance Operation isn't likely to alter that, though it's not without its fun moments. The two discs' 23 pieces are sequenced to cover 183 tracks.

Given an open brief, many of those featured - a who's who of fringe music that includes Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa, Robert Ashley, John Cale, Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono and Ryuichi Sakamoto - have chosen to offer tribute by way of their own compositions rather than by interpretation of the legendary avant-gardist's work. It's consequently a bit of a hit-and-miss affair: on the one hand, the determined squeals of the Kronos Quartet and the mad patter of Patrick Moraz's prepared piano speak volumes about the discipline at the heart of Cage's supposedly random methods; on the other, David Tudor's 'Webwork' (bubbly water noises and what sounds like a nest of rats working over a box of cornflakes) is perhaps closer to the spirit of the project.

Furrow-browed compositions for solo or multiple-solo instruments abound - a quartet of double basses moans lugubriously through Larry Austin's 'art is self-alteration is Cage is. . .' while, with its scratchy textures and seemingly bum notes, Christian Wolff's 'Six Melodies Variation for Solo Violin' bears an uncanny resemblance to Victor Lewis-Smith's spoof of Nigel Kennedy. More in keeping with the post-modernist sampling spirit of the Nineties are Sakamoto's 'Haiku FM' and Yoko Ono's 'Georgia Stone', collage pieces whose juxtapositions sound relatively normal in these surroundings. Of the improvised pieces, the chamber-jazz trio Oregon's is the most coherent - the most like 'real' music. For his part, it's Zappa who gets to perform Cage's celebrated 'silent' piece, '4U33S'. Spooky, or what?

MICHAEL PENN

Free-For-All

(RCA 07863 61113 2)

WHETHER Michael Penn will ever crawl out of the shadow cast by his thespian brothers Sean and Chris remains debatable. Free-for- All finds this idiosyncratic songwriter deep in the REM-zone, offering a series of enigmatic, slightly bitter reflections on the gulf between people, set to various shades of folk-rock in which folk and rock take turns to determine the cast of the songs. I'm also reminded strongly of Peter Blegvad's recent work, especially in Penn's delivery, which exults in the internal wordplay and ironies of his lyrics.

Most of Penn's songs trace a first- person disaffection, as if he's commenting upon and condemning his own views and actions even as he acknowledges their inevitability. Elastic metaphors and refracted meanings abound, settling neatly into the album's general underwater feel, its guitar-band sound streaked with ripples of odd, antique instrumentation - wavery calliope organ, broody washes of cello, and what sounds like mellotron. Sometimes the music seems to have wandered in from another song, as when Wendy Melvoin's trombone drifts across the fade of 'Strange Season', like a tardy schoolboy trying to catch up with the rest of the class. Like Penn's debut, March, it's an unassuming album, but a grower.

ART GARFUNKEL

Up Until Now

(Columbia COL 474853 2)

WHEN last encountered in print, Art Garfunkel was mid-way through a coast-to-coast walk across the USA. Perhaps it's for the best, if this is what his recording career has sunk to: a slapdash assortment of odds and sods from all parts of his career, ranging from the original acoustic version of 'The Sound of Silence' (1964) through a Skyliners cover from one of his late Seventies solo albums, to more recent material. Since the latter includes a one- minute TV theme song and 'Two Sleepy People' done for a film soundtrack, we're in distinctly barrel-scrapious territory to begin with, even before the addition of covers of 'It's All in the Game' and 'Crying in the Rain' - the latter an excitement-free duet with James Taylor - to give the running-order a little extra familiarity.

The general tenor is somnambulant, with little emotional texture: Garfunkel reaches the higher notes with such chorister ease, with no hint of untoward flatting or sharping, that it's hard for him to evoke authentic emotion. This is fortysomething easy-listening muzak, lacking only a Lennon- McCartney cover; instead, Jimmy Webb is drafted in to provide a few hymn-like vehicles for that angelic voice, including the festive 'The Decree' (also lifted from an earlier soundtrack LP), while the comic routine 'The Breakup' - in which Garfunkel tries to announce the duo's split while Simon, in the control booth, coaches him in solemnity - is thrown in to make up the numbers. Even by Garfunkel's own dilute standards, it all adds up to barely an album at all.

(Photographs omitted)

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