Music: Album Round-up

GOLDIE Saturnzreturn (London 828990 2)

Massively indulgent - at a whopping two-and-a-half hours - and overweeningly ambitious, Saturnzreturn finds the majordomo of drum'n'bass straining against the restrictions of a style which he's clearly outgrown. In particular, Goldie here seems to be struggling with the emotional sterility of a form which is painstakingly pecked out over a computer keyboard to give the illusion of hyperactivity. Each additional snare-crack or rimshot that gets crammed into a bar effectively leaves that much less room available for anything as vague and unquantifiable as emotion, which is perhaps why most drum'n'bass creators rely on amorphously moody string pads and waves of synth noise beneath their juggling jungle rhythm tracks.

Goldie's way out of this emotional impasse is "Mother", an hour-long symphonic exercise which shifts from an introductory seven minutes of electronic rushing noise into an extended bout of orchestral gloom, occasionally punctuated with a dash or two of skittering percussion. A sombre swathe of strings in the vein of oppressive piety favoured by the fashionable likes of Tavener and Gorecki, John Altman's arrangement shrouds Goldie's and Diane Charlemagne's voices as they croon "I can feel my mother/ surrounds me/ beside me". Which would be fine for 10 or 20 minutes, but is wearyingly tedious spread across an entire hour: There's little sense of progression or resolution, and it seems to be the length it is simply to impress with its grandiosity: "Mother" does have the effect, however, of making the rest of the double CD's tracks seem refreshingly brief, even the 16-minute jungle-jazz opus "Dragonfly", whose fluttering flutes, chattering beats and jazz guitar chords coalesce in the album's most satisfying piece. This seems to be Goldie's more natural inclination, judging by the acid- jazz flugelhorn stylings of "Believe" and "Crystal Clear". Certainly, none of the album's big-name collaborations enjoy similar force and focus: "Truth" is a vocal tone-poem featuring David Bowie crooning over synthetic wheezes; KRS-1's abysmal rap on "Digital" does neither party any favours; and the mix of Gallagher guitar and Goldie shouting that is "Temper Temper" seems like a hand-me-down stab at "Setting Sons" crossover that simply doesn't come off. I can't help feeling that the album's needless massiveness disguises a crisis of stylistic confidence.

PEARL JAM Yield (Epic EPC 489365 2)

Continuing the more low-key, post-grunge direction of No Code, Pearl Jam's Yield is their most sensitive, and in some ways their most compelling, album so far. Instead of the sheets of buzzsaw guitar, most tracks float on beds of gentle arpeggios, and even Eddie Vedder seems more at peace with himself, less determined to impose his suffering on the world. "Faithful" is one of several tracks which seem to take as their theme the notion of "only connect". Having painted themselves into ever tighter emotional corners on previous albums, they've finally acknowledged the need to break free of dead-end solipsism - to yield, indeed. As the album builds gently and logically to the wistful, resigned "All Those Yesterdays", the impression is left of a band about to transform, the better to face the future.

VARIOUS ARTISTS And the Times They Were a-Changin' (Debutante 555 431-2)

"Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan", ran a famous advertising campaign of the late Sixties, a time when everybody but the man himself, it seemed, could score huge hits with Dylan songs. The slogan obscured a much more interesting corollary, regarding the unparalleled breadth of artists and styles to which his songs could be applied. Whether poetic, prophetic, nonsensical, elegiac or accusatory, they blossomed with enigmatic universality for all manner of artists - Jimi Hendrix, Bryan Ferry, Manfred Mann, the Byrds - all included on this splendid compilation of Dylan covers, alongside other classic Bob interpreters such as Joan Baez, the Band, Johnny Cash and Van Morrison.

The quality throughout is extraordinarily high, reflecting the way that Dylan's songs pushed musicians to perform outside their skin. Albino bluesman Johnny Winter, for instance, will never do anything to equal his coruscating "Highway 61 Revisited", while the magical pairing of Aaron Neville's angelic tones in "With God on Our Side" still represents the high water mark of The Neville Brothers' output. All told, an essential anthology - and not one of them sings Dylan like Dylan.

USHER My Way (Arista 73008 26043 2)

Teen prodigy Usher has everything it takes to be a modern soul star - the washboard stomach, the rubbery legs, the LaFace production team, and the trousers that resolutely refuse to stay up above the waistband of his underpants. A pity, then, that all concerned should have stinted so on the nine songs here, which with the sole exception of the hit "You Make Me Wanna" are so unmemorable they're virtually transparent. To compensate, Usher does his hit twice, which is nice, although it does tend to point up the gulf in quality between its springy acoustic guitar groove and the characterless ballads and routine swingbeat licks that comprise the rest of My Way. Titles such as "Nice And Slow" and "Bedtime" indicate the full range of Usher's interests, and just in case you're still in any doubt, foul-mouthed rapper Lil' Kim is on hand on "Just Like Me" to spell it out for you in close to gynaecological detail. How odd, then, that despite such single-minded focus on the boudoir, the album should be almost completely devoid of eroticism.

JAMES IHA Let It Come Down (Hut/Virgin CDHUT 47)

This solo debut by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha is exactly the kind of solo record that members of West Coast bands used to make in the early Seventies: plangent, mellifluous, and largely lacking in decent songs, but done with such good spirit that it's hard to dislike too intensely. After all, if you spent most of your life bringing Billy Corgan's megalomaniac musical vision to fruition, you'd probably fancy a walk on the mild side on your day off.

The album scores most with Iha's tunes, which are mild and winsome, fluffy little things, sung in a gentle, unassuming manner highly reminiscent of the cult songwriter Freedy Johnston. There, alas, the comparison ends, as Iha clearly has difficulty finding interesting things to write about, and so ends up maundering on and on about the kind of idealised, saccharine lurrve that exists only in the slackly-coiled imaginations of American songwriters. The Pumpkins' albums might profit from a little slackening of Corgan's compositional grip, but the general lack of vitality and musical ambition raises the question as to why Iha felt so pressed to make a solo album in the first place.

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