Underworld: Second Toughest in the Infants; Junior Boys Own JBOCD4

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The Independent Online
Underworld's 1994 masterpiece, dubnobasswithmyheadman, set new standards for techno music, bringing a confounding humanity to the genre. Since then, they've retreated somewhat from the limelight, releasing only the stopgap single "Born Slippy" while working on the pieces that make up Second Toughest in the Infants. That long gestation is reflected in the care and attention to detail here, particularly on the two long opening tracks, the triptych "Juanita/ Kiteless/ To Dream of Love" and diptych "Banstyle/ Sappy's Curry", which flow seamlessly into double-figure timings without outstaying their welcome.

"Juanita" is typical of their method, subtly building layer upon layer of percussion effects into an irresistible momentum that gently whisks along the verbal freight of Karl Hyde's cut-up lyric fragments. The drum programming alone is quite exceptional; unlike many techno acts, Underworld have an unerring instinct for the way in which certain sounds move certain parts of the body, and how those parts must be moved in concert to create a really effective rhythm track. After all, there is no point in having your shoulder-dip conflicting with your head-twitch, is there?

This album adds the hyperactive snare and hi-hat sounds of jungle to their repertoire, but not in the harsh, jarring manner preferred by hardcore junglists. Instead, they're rendered smoother and slippier, stitched into the rhythm mesh with a subtlety worthy of Kraftwerk. The instrumental colouration stretched over the rhythm skeletons is, like the lyrical content, kept impressionistic and sparse - just a few bubbles of synthesiser, a piano arpeggio, keyboard tone or guitar loop. The melody of a track is less important than its state of flux, and its meaning comes as much from the music as the words.

It's an open, spacious method which allows the evocation of a wide range of moods, from the elastic modulations of "Rowla" to the spookier atmosphere of "Confusion the Waitress", and the result is possibly the most satisfying machine-music release since, well, since the last Underworld album, really.

Sting

Mercury Falling A&M 540 486-2

Sting's current PR campaign opened last week with tabloid shag- and-tell revelations, and builds - if that's the right term - to the obligatory South Bank Show profile next month. It seems like a pretty desperate attempt to make the Tyneside tunesmith appear interesting one way or another, and no wonder judging by Mercury Falling, which is far and away the worst record he's ever been involved with, and certainly a huge comedown from the relatively excellent Ten Summoner's Tales.

To be frank, a 50-megaton nuclear missile wearing Janet Reger undies would struggle to make this record interesting. It's all so faux: there's faux-gospel (the single "Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot"), faux-soul ("You Still Touch Me" and "All Four Seasons"), faux-Motown ("25 To Midnight"), faux-country ("I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying"), faux-folk ("I Was Brought To My Senses"), faux-murder-ballad ("I Hung My Head"), faux-chanson ("La Belle Dame Sans Regrets") and even faux-shanty ("Valparaiso"). What there isn't is heart, fire or a single track that sounds like it needed to exist.

Mercury Falling is nothing more than a collection of songwriting exercises made prematurely public, the professional songsmith trying on genres for size and doubtless chuckling at his own finely-turned conceits. As a spectator sport, though, it's about as dull as draughts, and made all the more so by the leaden competence of the performances. Should get a Brit award, by the sound of it.

He talks a good fight, does Auteurs songwriter Luke Haines, but only intermittently delivers on his promises. This third album is a strangely unaffecting affair after 1994's splendid Now I'm a Cowboy, all the more bafflingly so for its focus on violent death.

The majority of songs are murder ballads, but in a more personal sense than on Nick Cave's recent LP; Haines would be lost without his bile and recriminatory tendency, but here his lyrics don't cut anywhere near as sharply as usual.

Musically, the balance between guitars and cellos that marked earlier Auteurs albums has been completely lost - another inverse triumph for producer Steve Albini - leaving them sounding all the more wrong-footed by the Britpop/trip-hop duopoly which dominates domestic pop. They're strong-willed enough not to let that matter to them, but strength of will alone is not enough to render the unremarkable remarkable. Time for a rethink, perhaps.

Abiodun Oyewole's "comeback" album is a less strident affair than his fellow Last Poet Umar Bin Hassan's Be Bop Or Be Dead of a couple of years back, closer to Gil Scott-Heron's more ironic tone. The concerns and strategies are the same, however, particularly the carrot-and-stick blend of chiding and uplifting that Oyewole brings to his coverage of Afro-American culture.

The Bill Laswell settings are beautifully measured, from the cool jazz of "Brown Sugar" to the deep dub reggae groove of "Dread Brother". Henry Threadgill provides sympathetic horn arrangements, and Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng interlocks most effectively with the Last Poets' own hand-drummer Don Babatunde on the African groove of "Festival".

But whatever the virtues of the new grooves and words, there's no denying the power still wielded by the classic declamation "When the Revolution Comes" 25 years on. In the battle for the soul of Afro-American culture, it may ultimately come down to a contest between 2Pac and Abiodun Oyewole.

Or Pulp: The Not Much Cop Years. Listening to the nascent mini-dramas and lovelorn laments in this compilation, it's possible to discern all elements of the mature Pulp sound - low-budget glam-rock settings, the arch delivery, the trivial kitsch of suburban realism - but in distinctly semi-pro, if not actually amateur, form.

"Countdown" is the most direct precursor of the current Pulp style, along with 1992's "My Legendary Girlfriend". Even as late as 1992, though, influences such as the more louche side of Leonard Cohen and especially the melodramatic tableaux of Scott Walker are still audible.

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