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The Verve Urban Hymns

Virgin CD HUT45

A quantum leap beyond the sloppy indulgence of A Northern Soul, The Verve's third album is a work of comparative restraint and maturity, one which finds creative mainspring Richard Ashcroft looking and sounding much more the part of a rockstar than in the days when he was just "Mad Richard". Certainly, it's inconceivable that the old Verve would even have countenanced the idea that drugs might not work, the conceit which gives Urban Hymns its most haunting song.

The album opens with the "Bitter Sweet Symphony" single, the first hint of the band's resurgent power following premature rumours of dissolution. Derived from an old Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra instrumental written by Jagger & Richards (try singing along with the verses to "The Last Time"), it suggested that The Verve had reinvented themselves, Manic Street Preachers- style, as symphonic heavy-soul rockers. That's not quite the case, but there are times here, in tracks such as "The Rolling People", where they seem to be placing electrodes on the brain-dead corpse of heavy rock. The results are not that far removed from Reef's grunting boogie-rock, but there's a vertiginous whirl to the sound - possibly due to producer Youth's ministrations - that's utterly exhilarating.

Elsewhere, other comparisons suggest themselves: the engagingly vulnerable "Sonnet" finds that familiar Spandau Ballet guitar off-beat incorporated into one of U2's power-ballads, and there's a flavour throughout of how Echo & The Bunnymen might have sounded if they'd made a great album - the same blend of alienation and intertwining guitars. Ashcroft's not really a great lyricist, but he sticks firmly to his forte of despair and estrangement on Urban Hymns, offering a lost-soul world-weariness that's both more extreme and more focused than Radiohead's OK Computer, whose spirit it shares (though not its solipsism). Where the latter seems to exult in its own misery, The Verve suggest, in "One Day", that there's light at the end of the tunnel: "Tie yourself to the mast," sings Ashcroft, "the storm will pass".

Elton John, `The Big Picture'

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What with one thing and another, Elton's had a reasonably high profile of late; a pity, then, that his latest album should be so lacklustre. Mercifully, he's had enough taste not to include the reworked "Candle In The Wind", although "Long Way To Happiness" makes a maudlin enough opening.

Here and elsewhere on the album, it sounds as if Elton's been too heavily influenced by George Michael, which is like a current flowing backwards. In earlier days, though operating unashamedly in the middle of the road, he was always subtly innovative, able to bring a soupcon of invention to the most user-friendly material, and less prey to the unflinching musical conservatism that is George Michael's hallmark. Now, he doesn't seem quite that self-possessed, musically. The result here, despite the air of stylish modernity suggested by the crackpot Julian Schnabel sleeve, is drab and unremarkable, with the few interesting touches coming courtesy of Elton's piano-playing, particularly the R&B feel to "If The River Can Bend" and the slight oriental flavour to his fills in "The End Will Come".

Otherwise, the big, fatalistic orchestral arrangements tend to cast a pall of plodding inevitability over the album, and though the solo version of the Pavarotti duet "Live Like Horses" (unkindly called "Eat Like Horses" in some quarters) accordingly sounds less like shire horses, more like ponies, The Big Picture is quotidian fare overall.

Dubstar, `Goodbye Food' FoodCD 23

The Pet Shop Boys comparisons that accompanied Dubstar's Disgraceful debut are, if anything, all the more appropriate on this follow-up album. Steve Hillier's songs pivot on the same kinds of observations and dilemmas as Lowe and Tennant's; Stephen Hague's production gives the group's sound that sleek, well-lubricated PSB feel; and Sarah Blackwood could be Neil Tennant's younger sister, a laconic ingenue offering sentiments some way smarter (meaner, deeper, more vengeful) than her delivery suggests. But, one can't help thinking as the album proceeds, if only the Pet Shop Boys sounded this alert these days, if only their melodies were half as arresting - even if, in the case of "My Start In Wallsend", the tune is largely borrowed from Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today".

The songs on Goodbye lean towards the more introspective end of the emotional spectrum, but manage to cover a wide range nonetheless, Blackwood bringing a clear-eyed openness to subjects as disparate as the Fatal Attraction malevolence of "I Will Be Your Girlfriend", the suspicious spite of "When You Say Goodbye", and most impressively the regret of "Say The Worst Thing First", where, in the album's best line, she acknowledges that "my words were knives that broke our lives".

Lambchop, `Thriller City Slang'

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Lambchop's Kurt Wagner is rather like an American Robert Wyatt: there's a similarly vulnerable air to his singing, and an engagingly idiosyncratic approach to the backings conjured up for his songs. Echoing Wyatt's Shleep, there's even a bird song - about an old fat robin "with a brain the size of an eraser" - on Thriller, the best album so far from his band, Lambchop. But where Wyatt operates on the fringes of European jazz and British eccentricity, Lambchop use the white American musical vocabulary of country and easy- listening music; when they try to lift the tempo, as on the mildly vituperative "Your Fucking Sunny Day", they sound unashamedly honky-funky, their horns burring clumsily over a chipper little groove like a marching band ill-advisedly asked to get down and get with it.

There's a welcome enthusiasm for stretching boundaries, however, which sets the laconic Lambchop apart from "sadcore" country contemporaries like Palace and Smog, with whom they're sometimes compared. Their extensive line-up - the cover lists 13 members - enables an extensive palette of tones and textures, with a particular aptitude for locating the shared glimmer of glockenspiel, trumpet and pedal steel guitar in tracks such as "Crawl Away". Most extraordinarily of all, the muted trumpet on "Gloria Leonard" lends the song the appropriate Sunset Boulevard air of faded glamour, before it's slowly overwhelmed by the subliminal musique concrete of the title track, an exercise in abstract soundscaping utterly alien to the country genre. Remarkable stuff, really.