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Album Reviews: Watercolour blues

Andy Gill's round-up
ERIC CLAPTON Pilgrim (Reprise 9362-46577-2)

Pilgrim is so featherlight of touch, and so bereft of the kind of overt, upfront passion we have come to expect from blues guitarists, that it's hard to get excited about it one way or the other. The closest Clapton comes to transmitting that sort of deep blues feeling is the slow, impassioned "River Of Tears", and even that comes discreetly shaded with a watercolour tint of strings to ease the pain.

There are other blues offerings: St Louis Jimmy's ill-health plaint "Goin' Down Slow" is taken at a relaxed pace, as befits its subject, and elsewhere there's a live-sounding blues boogie, "Sick and Tired", and a mild blast of metallic funk or two ("She's Gone" and "One Chance"); but most of the album is taken up with subdued AOR essays meticulously stitched together using Protools computer studio technology by Simon Climie, once half of the pop-soulsters Climie Fisher. Not that this is a bad thing per se - the increased attention to detail pays dividends in places - but compared to Clapton's last few outings, there is a distinct air of diffident restraint holding back some of these tracks, keeping them as neat and unruffled as his Armani threads.

In terms of subject matter, Pilgrim involves a sort of 12-step approach to 12-bar business, with a ballad ("You Were There") about someone's support during "the days of wine and madness", and another song, "Circus", about Clapton's deceased son Conor, sparked by coming across his unused toys: "It's sad, so sad ... the circus left town". But whether this kind of blues- as-therapy works outside the most personal realm remains open to question; at times here, you simply feel embarrassed about intruding upon another's grief.

MORCHEEBA Big Calm (Indochina ZEN 017CD)

Starting as it means to continue, Morcheeba's second album opens with Skye Edwards gazing out over "The Sea", while the multi-instrumental genius Ross Godfrey sprinkles tiny guitar droplets over his brother Paul's lazy, laid-back groove, and a string section shimmers lightly on a nearby bandstand. It's a Big Calm indeed, this aquatic reverie, and the album never quite manages to drag itself away from the sun-kissed beach mood, even when exploring the more hazardous territory of "Shoulder Holster" and "Bullet Proof".

For one thing, Skye's gentle caress of a voice imposes its own imperatives of relaxation; for another, the brothers Godfrey appear to operate in such a haze of ganja that they're virtually incapable of devising any but the most smooth and mellow of grooves. Not that I'm complaining - compared with the tense, nervous offerings of fellow trip-hop operators such as Tricky and Portishead, it's a relief to hear music that doesn't set out to scare.

And in Ross Godfrey, Morcheeba have a protean musical talent, equally understated and tasteful whether trailing whiskery tendrils of sitar through "Shoulder Holster", adding funky clavinet and electric piano to "Friction" and "Let Me See", or sliding shiny curlicues of pedal steel guitar around "Part of the Process". Country trip-pop - now there's a genre to ponder.

TORTOISE TNT (City Slang 08705-2)

25 years after the drum solo became an indictable offence in rock'n'roll, Tortoise have the misplaced chutzpah to start their third album with a full 30 seconds of shimmery cymbals and jazzy flurries introducing a title track which unfurls into a cripplingly methodical guitar instrumental. After a few formulaic minutes, it dissolves amidst a patchwork of mumbles and found noises, before resurfacing with a little horn embellishment. It is the most drearily underwhelming opening to an album I have heard - though one entirely in keeping with all that follows.

Then again, it's a mistake to call Tortoise a rock'n'roll band - the chances are that if any of them were found accidentally rocking or rolling, they would be politely asked to leave. No, this is "post-rock" instrumental music, a pallid conflation of jazz and prog-rock which relies, in Tortoise's case, on the excessive use of mallet instruments such as vibes and glockenspiel - nice as novelty touches, but imposing a numbing petrification on vast tracts of TNT, where tracks such as "Ten-Day Interval" sound like pale copies of Steve Reich's gamelan-inspired pieces. There are one or two moments when discernible rock influences are allowed to creep in, such as "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls" - which by the sound of it is suspended somewhere midway between Frank Zappa and Steely Dan, though crucially lacking the pith and vinegar of either. Dull, dull, dull.

LIONROCK City Delirious (Concrete HARD 32LPCD)

As the DJ behind such Manchester club institutions as Spice and Most Excellent, Justin Robertson was a seminal influence on the likes of the Chemical Brothers, and could lay claim to the title of Big Beat Godfather. This second offering from his Lionrock ensemble exhibits the eclecticism he instilled in the scene, along with a nice line in propulsive, elastic grooves which add a touch of twitch and sway to the Big Beat imperative.

Robertson's samples come from more disparate sources than usual in dance music - there's some lovely Lalo Schifrin-style movie-theme horns in "Electric Hairdo", and a creepily effective Dr John horn line in "Wet Roads Glisten" - with a particular affinity for ska influences on the "new skank" hit single "Rude Boy Rock". It adds up to perhaps the most effective album- length evocation of edgy urban dystopia since Sabres of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall, but while the music is rarely less than inventive, the downbeat, deadpan poems (it's hardly rapping) by MC Buzz B detract from pieces such as "Rock Steady Romance" and the title track. Rappers can paper over shortcomings with vocal attitude, but when MC Buzz B starts on about the means of production in "Amazing New Product", it just sounds like a lecture.