ANDY GILL ON ALBUMS

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Chumbawamba

Tubthumper

EMI CDEMC3773

Nine albums into your career is a funny old time for an anarchist rock band to decide to sign to EMI - a conglomerate once sternly upbraided by political popsters for its arms-industry connections - but the move seems to have worked for the feisty tyke collective .

Their polemical ardour burns as brightly as ever on Tubthumper, but in a more deceptively listener-friendly manner: the move to a major label is, I'd guess, only part of a more considered approach to media manipulation in general, with stark denunciations and rousing cries couched in sweet harmonies and poptastic singalong melodies. It's as if they've belatedly realised that a point has to be heard to be made. And, boy, do they have points to make, on subjects as various and timely as homelessness ("The Big Issue"), union betrayal ("One By One"), crime ("Creepy Crawling") and Labour Party inconstancy ("Amnesia"): and lest we misconstrue, each of the dozen songs comes supported by a mass of quotation and detailed annotation on related matters. Mercifully, we're spared a reading list.

The title-track single is the most sophisticated example here, a brilliant distillation of positive political statement and piss-head populism, whose indomitable chorus functions with equal utility for pickets, protestors, football fans and beery lads alike, and whose boozer's litany ("he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink...") might even replace Underworld's "shouting lager, lager, lager..." as the preferred 11 o'clock anthem of the drinking classes. Elsewhere, the close harmonies of "The Big Issue" and "Drip, Drip, Drip" recall the sly methods of The Beautiful South in sugaring acid sentiments, while echoes of pop familiarities like "Radio Gaga" help those sentiments penetrate defences undetected.

As the several references to "raining stones" suggest, Tubthumper is something like the audio equivalent of a Ken Loach film, an attitude further developed by the bookending of the album with excerpts from Pete Postlethwaite's climactic speech from Brassed Off: "Oh aye, they can knock out a bloody good tune, but what the fuck does that matter?" And as you'll doubtless recall, Postlethwaite's band refused to accept the winners' trophy, but took it with them just the same.

EDWYN COLLINS

I'm Not Following You

Setanta SETCD039

Edwyn Collins's career brings new meaning to the term "staying power", last year's "A Girl Like You" being only his second hit single in around a decade and a half of trying.

The wait has clearly left him a little jaundiced about the whole pop business, judging by I'm Not Following You: these songs are dripping with bilious cynicism, and not only the track on which Mark E Smith splutters dyspeptically about the Seventies. The most obvious hurt is that at the heart of "No One Waved Goodbye", an account of the vertiginous vagaries of celebrity that saw Collins a star one day and a nonentity the next; now he's a star again, he's getting his retaliation in first. "Downer" continues the theme, the singer musing upon the onerous obligations of fame that seem so contrary to his nature: "Is it conceit that finds me here? Too much wine, or too much beer?"

High on Edwyn's hit-list is the grey, boorish homogeneity of Britpop, against which he propounds a satirical eclecticism. The album darts from style to style, checking disco and Northern Soul stomp in "Seventies Night" and "Keep on Burning", reflecting upon the changing fortunes of a genre in "Country Rock" ("that reassuring sound/banal and yet profound"), using flugelhorn to add a Bacharach touch to "For the Rest of My Life", and essaying a kind of lolloping psychedelia for the iconoclast's anthem "I'm Not Following You Anymore", whose conclusion - sheep loudly mown down by machine-guns - leaves one in little doubt as to his opinion of modern pop fans.

SWEET 75

Sweet 75

Geffen DGCD 25140

After the involuntary break-up of Nirvana, drummer Dave Grohl got on with his career with almost indecent haste, putting together the Foo Fighters and releasing a creditable pair of fast 'n' furious punk-pop albums. For him, there was a clear agenda beyond Nirvana. Bassist Krist Novoselic was rather more circumspect, and rightly so: Sweet 75, the eponymous debut from his new trio, demonstrates starkly why it was Kurt Cobain who wrote the songs in his previous band.

It's pretty thin stuff, I'm afraid, with Novoselic playing electric 12- string guitar and a female Venezuelan busker, Yva Las Vegas, grunting unappealingly about Dolly Parton, dentists and dogs, none of which could be said to be the most vital subject for a song. Occasionally, riffing horns try to bolster the grey, grungey sound, and on a couple of tracks Las Vegas sings in Spanish, but these seem but token attempts to lend a little exotic interest to an album that tends towards the quotidian. The best groove here is that in "Ode To Dolly", which borrows wholesale the riff to Sir Douglas Quintet's classic "She's About a Mover", only without the ebullient sense of fairground exuberance. For the rest, not even the guest appearances of Herb Alpert (on trumpet) and Peter Buck (on mandolin) help liven up this most mundane of records.

THE SKATALITES

Ball of Fire

Island Jamaica Jazz IJCD 4005

It is an abiding truth of R&B that many of the session-players on classic R&B, soul and rock 'n' roll records actually preferred playing jazz, and found the day-to-day financial necessity of having to crank out simple R&B grooves demeaning. Hence the after-hours jam sessions that took place late at night between touring musicians in small clubs, their chops finally getting the airing they felt they deserved after the evening-show chores of rock 'n' roll had been completed and the cheques cashed.

Much the same syndrome applies to Jamaican musicians, judging by this new release from The Skatalites, one of the top reggae backing bands of the Sixties and Seventies. Ball of Fire finds many of the same names that played on catchy tunes like "Guns of Navarone" stretching out and soloing on melodies that could sometimes do with a little simplification, and usually a little truncation, too.

It's not that the musicians, who include such esteemed players as Roland Alphonso on tenor sax and Ernest Ranglin on guitar, are sloppy or substandard; most of the solos here are tight and tidy, and the rhythm section wastes no unnecessary effort in chivvying the tunes along. It's just that, even when a piece begins with commendable snap and panache, as does the shuffling ska-jazz reworking of the "James Bond Theme" (a similar exercise to the aforementioned "Guns Of Navarone"), the impetus invariably drains away after a few minutes, as each musician in turn takes their break, usually culminating in Ranglin soloing in that dry tone beloved of jazz guitarists. It's all well-mannered and meticulous, but there's less entertainment value here than one might have expected: ultimately, you're left with the feeling that it's being done for their benefit, rather than yours. That's jazz, I guess. n

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