Music: Andy Gill on albums

Ian Brown, Unfinished Monkey Business

Polydor 5395652

This is a classic case of desire outstripping reach: after the democratic disaster of the Stone Roses, Brown clearly wants to retain as much control as possible here, to the extent of learning and playing bass, drums, guitars and keyboards on several tracks, and producing and mixing the whole thing himself. An admirable attitude, but unfortunately he's no Stevie Wonder, and the result is that this is one album which couldn't fail to be improved by a decent remix.

In particular, he deserves a better producer: there are some attractive swamp-funk and dub grooves here - several, like "What Happened To Ya Pts 1 & 2", enlivened by Aziz Ibrahim's dextrous guitar - but instead of floating free, they seem mired in the muddiest of mixes. With Reni and Mani back in harness, "Can't See Me" could be a holdover from the Roses, but again, the rampant flanging and Brown's addition of "rhythm bass guitar" simply blur its lines. And though the singer has explained his choice of Chiswick Reach studios by reference to the Trojan reggae records that were recorded there, the only profitable applications here would appear to be "Deep Pile Dreams" and its melodica dub, "Unfinished Monkey Business" itself.

But despite the eccentric production, there's no faulting the singers's intentions, or the quality of raw material such as "Corpses In Their Mouths" and the single "My Star". If Brown can retain his creative impetus when the bitter score-settling with John Squire that permeates much of the album has drained away, his next album could be special.

Wes, Welenga

Epic 485146-2

Cameroonian singer Wes Madiko has the kind of voice that makes a mockery of formulaic Anglo-American notions of "soul" singing. Though he clearly places a premium on emotional impact, there's an immense degree of technique employed on the twelve songs that comprise Welenga, his collaboration with Michel (Deep Forest) Sanchez; but what makes it all the more arresting is Madiko's penchant for changing approach from song to song.

So while the album starts out like a poppy version of a Salif Keita or Youssou N'Dour record, it's soon ranging much further afield, even delving into the animal kingdom for inspiration, judging by the froggy croak of a larynx on "Mizobiya". At the other end of the smoothness scale, tracks like "Kekana" and "Wezale" feature some beautiful polyphonic melisma straight from Aaron Neville's most ecstatic dreams, while "Degue Wegue" must be the closest singing comes to weeping without tears actually being spilt. Sanchez's discreet beats and string pads leave the stage free for Wes's voice to go through its emotive gymnastics, and the pairing has already secured a multi-million-selling Gallic chart-topper in "Alane", a perfect example of the album's intention of offering "l'union du feu et de l'eau". Recommended.

Various artists, The Rapsody Overture

Mercury 536-855-2

Rap and classical music - now there's a great idea, right up there with the rear-situated petrol tank on the Ford Pinto, and those connecting air-pipes on the Titanic. It's actually Coolio's idea, though he's completely blameless here - none of these mis-matched abominations has a fraction of the grace and apposition of his adaptation of Pachelbel's Canon on "C U When U Get There". We are, admittedly, dealing with rather more slender talents for the most part here, lower-league names like Xzibit, Jay and Scoota, but even the higher-profile rappers such as Redman, Mobb Deep and Onyx can't surmount the staggering disjunction between the two musical forms.

One hardly expects originality any more from a genre that routinely ransacks the most familiar of soul and funk cuts for its backing tracks, but the blinding obviousness of the chosen classical extracts really does beggar belief, with the likes of Debussy's "Faun", Puccini's "Tosca" and "Nessun Dorma" dragooned into service as the backings for yet another round of dreary gangsta apologia and crude sexual suggestion. Warren G has already scored a hit with "Prince Igor", based on Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" - a piece whose grace and fluidity his rap lacks in spades - but the only rapper who suggests he might have an inkling of how this union of opposites should work is LL Cool J, whose "Dear Mallika" blends a poignant, romantic lyric with Delibes' "Lakme". Whatever next - rap and country?

Catatonia, International Velvet

blanco y negro PRCD 972

"Every day when I wake up, I thank the Lord I'm Welsh," runs the chorus to the title-track of Catatonia's second album, as if the band realise their appeal is largely dependent on association with the recently trendy wave of Cym-rock. International Velvet is suffused with a desperate longing for attention, but between the drabness of the band's generic indie-pop and the grinding unadventurousness of the pop-culture references they appropriate - The X-Files? The Godfather, for heaven's sake? - there's precious little here to attract the floating listener.

Like several of their compatriots, they strive to evoke a sort of strident whimsy, but where Gorky's Zygotic Mynci or Super Furry Animals would conjure up a magical image or a strange situation, Catatonia are stuck with commonplace metaphors like "Road Rage" and "Part Of The Furniture". Cerys Matthews' voice is the band's Unique Selling Point, its harsh, grating edge reminiscent of '60s folkie chanteuse Melanie, though she applies it with none of the latter's generosity of spirit. Certainly, lines like "I know that I would never/Fall from grace, I'm far too clever" would only be written by someone who's far less clever than they think.

The High Llamas, Cold And Bouncy Alpaca


Still marooned in a time- and space-warp - the time being 1969, the space being the nether reaches of Brian Wilson's mind - Sean O'Hagan's High Llamas continue where they left off with the immaculately crafted but essentially pointless Hawaii.

This time, however, O'Hagan's association with Stereolab has patinated his Wilsonian arrangements with extra layers of cheesy easy-listening muzak and wheedling synthesisers, as if trying to imagine what the troubled Beach genius might have come up with had Dr Moog invented his new machine in time to catch him compos mentis. In other words, it's another dilettante exercise in elegant futility, its prim, trim words, soothing vibes and cellos and plunking banjos arrayed in precisely-measured, emotionless songs which leave one, well, cold but not so bouncy. For despite O'Hagan's alleged interest in Brazilian music, the rhythms here stick resolutely to the kind of lazy equestrian clip-clops which Wilson employed in the duller parts of the abortive Smile project. But what's the point of music which moves one neither physically nor emotionally?

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