Andy Gill on albums

Taj Mahal Taj Mahal and the Hula Blues

(Tradition & Moderne T&M 009)

Quietly and unspectacularly, Taj Mahal is currently experiencing a golden period to match that which produced his tremendous early albums back in the late Sixties. Last year's Senor Blues offered a relaxed tour of black modes, from blues to jazz and back the long way round; this album, allowed to slip out late last year on a small German label, finds him in the even more relaxing surroundings of Kauai, his former Hawaiian island home, playing with a group of local musicians. It's a beauty.

Always open to new influences and musical blends, from sources as diverse as India, Africa and the Caribbean, it's no surprise how smoothly Taj incorporates the native Island sounds - mostly Hawaiian guitar and various ukeleles - into his blues-based music. The results are warmly rewarding: the opening tribute, "The Calypsonians", for instance, is a laidback, fluid cross between traditional folk-blues, Hawaiian and Afro-Caribbean styles, with Rudy Costa's languid soprano sax gliding over a twinkling bed of kalimba and ukelele. Taj's interest in the Caribbean continues here with a version of the Toots & The Maytals standard "Monkey Man" adapted for Pacific environs as "Coconut Man", its rock-steady offbeat pumped along by chugging ukeleles and pan-pipes, and its original message of fellowship and friendly rivalry extended to include Fijians, Hawaiians and Kiwis. What's particularly impressive about these cross-cultural exercises is the way they seem unforced, rather than schematic - evidence of the musicians' mutual regard, and of the unbreakable thread which, for Taj Mahal, connects most of the planet's music.

Metalheadz, `Platinum Breakz II'

(London 828 986-2)

The second double-album compilation of drum' n'bass cuts from Goldie's Metalheadz crew features several significant changes from its predecessor, as such famous names as Photek and Alex Reece have departed for solo deals elsewhere, to be replaced by young guns Ed Rush and Adam F. The latter has already won awards for "Metropolis", a bravura exercise basically consisting of one spooky keyboard chord deftly spun around a web of percussion, while Rush's "The Raven" is one of several slices of haunted-house "ambient drum'n'bass" included here.

Most impressive of the new artists is Hidden Agenda, a Newcastle duo whose "Pressin' On" involves the slick, jazzy deconstruction of a vibes sample. It's cool and smooth, with that paradoxical combination of looseness and tightness which characterises the best of the genre. Of the older hands, Peshay's "On The Nile" is a laidback winner, a Debussian swoon of flute negotiating a few electric piano chords. But for every decent track, there are at least a couple of over-extended bouts of snare-drum syncopation lacking atmosphere and, crucially, fun. At times, it's like witnessing worker ants beavering away for reasons beyond their ken, so caught up in their polyrhythmic brilliance that they've forgotten to include even the most rudimentary of melodies.

Wingless Angels, `Wingless Angels'

(Island Jamaica/Mindless 314-524-447-2))

This is what it must be like at Keith Richards's Jamaican hideaway of an evening: a troupe of local Rasta drummers tap gently at their bongos as cicadas chirp in the underbrush, while dimly visible through the haze of sacramental smoke, Keef himself sits strumming at a guitar, a rum-flavoured beverage briefly laid aside.

Such is the mental picture conjured by the Keef-produced debut from Wingless Angels, a six-man, one-woman drum crew whose best-known member is probably Justin Hines, once of The Dominoes. Similar in style and intent to such earlier pious percussionists as Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus, these Wingless Angels concentrate almost exclusively on pounding out the slow, methodical Nyabinghi beat as they sing of Mount Zion, the River Jordan, and, of course, those ubiquitous "Rivers Of Babylon".

With Richards' surprisingly delicate guitar tracery and Frankie Gavin's Celtic drones embroidering the hypnotic rhythms in fashionably eclectic manner, it's pleasant enough for a track or three, but is too unremittingly stuporous for more prolonged exposure. Indeed, it might usefully be played to Jack Straw's son as a warning of the dire consequences of over-indulgence in the native flora.

Frank Black & Teenage Fanclub, `The John Peel Session'

(Strange Fruit SFRSCD 042)

Finding himself temporarily without a backing band when called upon to provide another Peel Session in May 1994, former Pixies mainman Frank Black asked his chums from Teenage Fanclub to help out, and after a quick rehearsal, the resulting aggregation knocked out the four tracks on this EP.

The session obviously caught Frank in the midst of a Del Shannon obsession, judging by two of the tracks: Shannon's own "Sister Isabel" is given something of a psychedelic makeover, while Jimmy Jones's old garage-pop stomper "Handyman" (also a hit for the Sixties falsetto popster) sounds as it might had The Clash chosen to do a cover version. The other tracks, both Black originals, are handled with similar swagger and aplomb: "The Jacques Tati" is a daft dance spoof, presumably based on the Gallic humorist's physical ungainliness, while "The Man Who Was Too Loud" finds Frank in decidedly Dylanesque vocal mode. For a one-off, off-the-cuff pairing, it's not bad at all, and certainly a lot more lively than last year's dreary offering from the Fannies.

Queen Pen, `My Melody'

(Universal/Lil' Man)

Brooklyn rapper Queen Pen first came to public attention as a guest on Blackstreet's huge hit "No Diggety", since when she has teamed up with Midas-touch swingbeat producer Teddy Riley and become the first artist on his new Lil' Man label. Boasting the usual spitting, spiteful delivery and the same old gangsta attitudes for the most part, it's hard to discern what sets Queen Pen apart from the likes of Lil' Kim, Lady Of Rage or the vastly superior Missy Elliott, other than Riley's spick-and-span backing tracks. Even then, grave doubts are raised by their choice of samples, which include Spandau Ballet and Phil Collins's "In The Air Tonight". The album's best track finds Pen sharing vocal duties with Me'shell Ndegeocello on the latter's lesbian taunt "If That Was Your Girlfriend (She Wasn't Last Night)", though little of substance is added to the Ndegeocello original.

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