Andy Gill's album round-up

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GARBAGE Version 2.0 (Mushroom MUSH 29CD)

Garbage are a schizophrenic sort of rock band, permanently teetering on the slim divide between genres, admitting nothing but accepting anything. The software-styled title of this follow-up to their 4-million-selling debut, and the sleek precision of the recordings themselves, scream "digital", but the chunky guitar riffing and Shirley Manson's acerbic rock-chick stylings betray a lingering affection for unreconstructed analogue rock 'n'roll ways. As Shirley Manson confides in the album's opening track, "I'll tell you something/I am a wolf but I like to wear sheep's clothing."

The confusion extends to their songs, which inhabit the more ambivalent regions of the human psyche, where paranoia, low self-esteem and addiction corrode the spirit - though even then, the hummable, pop-conscious backings sweeten the pill and leave the listener uncertain as to a song's exact status.

Most of the songs feature some kind of dysfunctional element, usually a breakdown in communication that results in a corresponding mental breakdown, most notably in "The Trick is to Keep Breathing", whose abused subject seems paralysed by her own lack of assertiveness, all too willing to disguise her pitiful situation by a froth of feelgood nonsense: "She knows the human heart/And how to read the stars/Now everything's just going to fall apart". Like the girl in "Sleep Together" who enquires "If we sleep together/Will you like me better?", or the addicts living in denial in "Medication", she's trapped, unable to break out of the cycle of self-deception and dependency. And what are we supposed to make of the narrator of "I Think I'm Paranoid", when she slips into Amen Corner acquiescence, singing "Bend me, shape me, any way you want me"? Paranoid, or submissive? Or just confused?

Version 2.0 may have a broader musical palette than its predecessor, with occasional contributions from a string section and the appearance on one song of a cymbalom (an outsize mandolin played with metal claws), and may feature some impressive technical sleight of hand - such as the 100 drum-loops folded into the frenetic beat of "Hammering in My Head" - but they're all essentially used in the service of the same kind of sculpted rock noise that characterised their debut. What's noticeable this time around is the way that the settings are more precisely designed to fit the emotional contours of a particular song, so that the spiteful "Special" comes complete with Manson's best Chrissie Hynde sneer, and "The Trick is to Keep Breathing" lurks in the appropriate sinister shadows.

VARIOUS ARTISTS Largo (Mercury 314 536 877-2)

Taking their cue from the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's affection for American folk modes, producer/songwriters Rick Chertoff, Rob Hyman, Eric Bazilian and David Forman - previously responsible for adult-pop hits from Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osborne and the Hooters, among others - have fashioned an eclectic meditation upon America's multiracial history, using the likes of Lauper, Osborne, Taj Mahal, the Chieftains and members of the Band to give voice to the waves of immigrants who have contributed to an ongoing musical patchwork.

It's an impressive piece of work, a faux-roots exercise that slips easily between several versions of Dvorak's "Largo" (the Hovis ad theme), from the likes of the Chieftains and Garth Hudson, and more extravagant hybrids, such as "Freedom Ride", which features Taj Mahal accompanied by a hurdy- gurdy on a cajun-flavoured romp, and "Cyrus in the Moonlight", on which Lauper's bowed dulcimer and the throbbing vibrato of Bazilian's guitar combine to produce a shimmering Daniel Lanois ambience. Several tracks are strongly reminiscent of the Band, and not just those on which Hudson or Levon Helm appear: Rob Hyman does a good impression of Hudson's woozy- organ style, and there's a lovely undercurrent of country-funk coursing through much of the album. Elsewhere, Lauper excels on "White Man's Melody", a luxuriantly sexy torch ballad that includes the album's most winning lines: "From the loins of Liberace/Sprang a million little tunes/And they whirled around Eliza/Like so many little moons."

Largo does, admittedly, lose some of its power towards the end, especially when Carole King shows up to offer a maundering sermon about how we should all live together in peace and love; and it's probably a mistake to have Willie Nile portray a Pakistani cab-driver in New York - as the latest in a long line of huddled masses plucking at the Statue of Liberty's hem - with no hint of the requisite Asian musical input. But it's a noble enough project, intended to remind Americans of a multi-cultural legacy, and one that should interest anyone attracted to the likes of Tom Waits, the Band, or even rootsy young upstarts like Gomez. Check it out.

ASIAN DUB FOUNDATION Rafi's Revenge (ffrr 556 006-2)

Fortunately, multi-cultural eclecticism is a much more natural, less mannered occurrence in modern Britain than it is in America. Asian Dub Foundation's music says more about the UK's ethnic mix than any concept album could: the stew of house, rap, indie, Asian and Caribbean modes in Rafi's Revenge celebrates by example the cultural diversity of a Britain whose people are, on the whole, rather more generous than Enoch Powell ever gave them credit for. In ADF's "Dub Mentality", dub itself is characterised as a symbolic miscegenation, a case of "Different communities meet[ing] up in the same place ... mixing up the flavours to suit every taste".

It's not all sweetness and light, of course: the single "Free Satpal Ram" draws attention to an old wound in need of attention - the lengthy imprisonment of an Indian waiter who killed while defending himself from racist attack - and there are sadly familiar complaints about police oppression and injustice. But the revolutionary/terrorist action hailed in tracks such as "Naxalite" and "Assassin" is, significantly, historical, concerned with the Indian subcontinent's situation in, respectively, the late Sixties and the late Thirties. The positive cross-cultural drive of "Culture Move" and "Black White" carries much greater hope for the future. As rapper Deeder Zaman states, with irrefutable logic, "As the world is getting smaller/We can only get closer and closer".

MONEY MARK Push the Button (Mo'Wax MWO 90CD)

If push came to shove, keyboard wizard Mark Ramos-Nishita could probably provide a reasonably comprehensive survey of American music culture all on his own, judging by the admirably eclectic Push the Button. There's a scattershot, Beck-ish playfulness about this second album from the man they're calling "the fourth Beastie", and though it's ultimately not quite as adhesive or rewarding as Beck's best work - there's a little too much cheesy lounge music here for comfort, if that's not a contradiction in terms - it's diverting enough for the most part. Equally oddball in a variety of styles from Latin to funk, jungle to punk, Mark's at his most engaging on simple, ingenuous pieces such as "Tomorrow Will Be Like Today" and the single "Maybe I'm Dead", though even then he can't resist the disjunction between the song's curious sentiment and its agreeably mild delivery. It's not often you get to applaud a musician's courageous asininity, but such is the undeniably weird appeal of Push the Button.

ARETHA FRANKLIN

A Rose is Still a Rose (Arista 07822 18987 2)

But not all roses smell as sweet. By any other name, this Rose would stink - if it's not the worst album of Aretha's illustrious career, it shaves it pretty close. The strategy of pairing her in turn with all the big swingbeat and contemporary R&B producers - the likes of Sean "Puffy" Combs, Narada Michael Walden, Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin and Daryl Simmons - is uninspired at best, and betrays a more general lack of conviction. More worrying, though, is the fact that none of the producers can disguise the depredations of time upon that mighty voice, which seems shrill and strained, a brittle reflection of its original power - most grievously on Dupri's appropriately fatalistic "Here We Go Again", where, in attempting the kind of annoying showboating now considered de rigueur for soul divas, she emits an embarrassing series of squawks, all the more painful for our knowing how far short they fall of Aretha's capabilities.

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