The Afghan Whigs: Black Love; Mute CDSTUMM 143

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The Afghan Whigs

Black Love

Mute CDSTUMM 143

Always a step or two apart from their grunge-generation peers, the Afghan Whigs' individuality finally pays off with the kind of substantial dividends they've often promised but never previously secured. Yet another album of death songs - clearly the flavour of the year so far - to follow the Nick Cave and Auteurs efforts, it mines the similarities between obsessional love and psychopathy more effectively than either, building up a powerful portrait of a disintegrating personality stretched tautly between conflicting emotions of love and hate.

With plodding, fatalistic verses broached by chorus rages, "Double Day" is the closest the album comes to the classic Nirvana soft / loud formula.

The most generic, it's also one of the least interesting arrangements here, Black Love being the kind of LP that finds endless intriguing variations on the standard guitar-rock blast. Examples of this include "Step into the Light", where Greg Dulli's Jagger-esque croon wanders into a Pere Ubu-style synth-whine, and "Night by Candlelight", where the falsetto vocals become ultimately overwhelmed by desolate Arvo Part-flavoured string textures.

None of the musical devices are gratuitous, though; all are employed for specific expressionist effect, slowly uncovering the bruised psyche of a narrator who admits, in the climactic song "Faded", that "If I go bad / From time to time / Love to love but love is not / My only crime".

Steve Martin, in one of his stand-up routines, once memorably expressed dissatisfaction at the way the blues was "so depressing". Amusing, maybe, but incorrect, as a cursory listen to Taj Mahal's latest album proves. Featuring some of Taj's personal old favourites given a Mahal makeover, Phantom Blues is a light-hearted delight from first to last.

It's largely a homage to some of his heroes, done in part with his peers: "The Hustle Is On" and "Here in the Dark" pay tribute respectively to T-Bone Walker's railroad-rhythm shuffle style and his deeper indigo blues, the latter scorched by a fiery lead line from Eric Clapton. Later on, EC gets on a Freddie King tip for Taj's version of King's "(You've Got To) Love Her with a Feeling", while elsewhere, Bonnie Raitt pairs up with Taj for a boisterous swing through Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford's old gospel- R&B rollick "I Need Your Loving", complete with fake endings. Fruity versions of "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" and "Let the Four Winds Blow" furnish the New Orleans flavourings, and there are clear stylistic nods in other songs to the distinctive vocal deliveries of Howlin' Wolf, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.

Topped up with tastes of country-blues and swamp-funk, it's Taj's equivalent of Clapton's From the Cradle: just as accomplished and musically erudite, but considerably more varied, and a lot more fun. Blues album of the year, in all probability.

Always musically spineless and transparent, Ride's swansong album finds them stranded like a beached jellyfish on the shores of popular taste. Like the Auteurs, Suede and Gene they have been blind-sided by the rise of Britpop, but unlike Luke Haines & Co, they have scant reserves of grit to call upon, and have limply bowed to the inevitable, several years after it first became inevitable, leaving behind an album so desperately poor that, in an attempt to maximise its deflated chart potential, it's only being made available for a week.

Hamstrung by the kind of inadequacies that never mattered in their earlier shoegazing days, Ride cast about vainly for a new identity here, trying on styles ranging from Neil Young to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and scattering the patter of tiny bongoes over everything in a useless attempt to suggest the belated acquisition of a rhythmic sensibility. The lyrics, meanwhile, alternate between the cliched - "Just like a child, I'm running wild" - and the pretentious. "Deep Inside My Pocket" is perhaps the most absurd example of the latter, illustrating to hilarious effect what happens when presumptions of significance collide head-on with philosophical vacuity. Available for a week? As the old song has it, seven days is too long.

It may well provide a softly comforting soundtrack to his new daughter's life, but the slowly modulated electronic tones and textures of Howie B's album struggle to offer any more substantial value. There is simply too little incident here to hold more adult attention: "Cry" is not so much a wail as a quiet sob.

It's hard to say why the album exists: the title is an obvious tip of the hat to Brian Eno, but there's little here that hasn't been comprehensively covered by minimalists and avant-rockers over the past 30 years. Speaking as a former baby, I would venture to suggest that the pram-bound generally prefer rather happier, bouncier tunes. Or, failing that, any tune.