Music: Andy gill on albums

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The Smashing Pumpkins

Adore

(Hut)

Rock musicians can be such shameless emotional predators. Having griped and glowered for several albums about how rotten his parents were to leave him with his stepmother, Billy Corgan here offers an entire album inspired by his birth-mother Martha's recent death from cancer. Sad and shocking as it may have been, I must admit I never relish sharing a stranger's personal grief - particularly quite so much of a stranger's personal grief - though the album's general tone of warm devotion does, admittedly, make it less gruelling than most.

At 16 songs, Adore is another marathon, though mercifully neither as overlong nor as overwrought as 1995's Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. Deliberately eschewing that album's heavier rock tendencies, the group have made a virtue out of the departure of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, sacked for persistent drug addiction: the rhythm tracks here are constructed from loops laid down by a series of session drummers, edited and sequenced to give the trio's folk-rock and new-wave stylings a more modern sound.

On the album's most obvious hit single, "Appels And Oranjes", the result is a sort of New Romantic cyber-shudder, very early Eighties; but mostly, the dominant style is a kind of gentle prog-rock, lilting and warm in the vein of "1979" from Melon Collie, as Corgan essays a series of variations on the basic theme of loss. Undoubtedly easier on the ear than its predecessor, it also finds Corgan at his most approachable since Siamese Dream. Tragedy, it seems, not only makes him stronger, but nicer, too.

Barry Adamson

As Above So Below

(Mute CDStumm161)

On his 1996 masterpiece Oedipus Schmoedipus, Barry Adamson used a series of guest singers, including Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker, to give voice to the emotional undercurrents coursing through his music. Here, he takes on all the vocal duties himself, the only appropriate course of action on an album intended to reflect the different sides of its composer. Given his facility with the tones and textures of jazz, lounge and movie soundtrack styles, it could have been titled, without undue irony, The Many Moods Of Barry Adamson - except that whichever angle one views the album from, its subject remains a stubbornly integrated whole, a compacted mass of warring desires and ethics. Which is, of course, exactly as it should be.

Written whilst Adamson was recovering from a serious operation, the album reflects a need to re-establish his identity, resolve personality contradictions and transcend the limitations imposed by such contradictions. It opens with Adamson staring into a mirror, trying to recognise himself beyond his dark sunglasses: "I see myself but don't see me / Two burning eyes that don't agree". From there until it closes on a bewildering variety of voices bidding "Welcome", the album spins a series of dark tableaux from this basic premise, Adamson by turns slick and sinister, erotic and egoistic.

As usual, his command of musical vocabulary is nonpareil, the staple cool-jazz soundtrack style of "Jazz Devil", "Goddess Of Love" and "What It Means" augmented in places by the urban swamp crawl of "Deja Voodoo" - Adamson serving up the gris-gris like a Mancunian Dr John - and the erotic buzz and groan of "Girl", a perfectly replicated Suicide cover with perhaps a touch too much drool dribbling down its chin. "Come Hell Or High Water" adds a little Portishead moment with a nightclub croon about "a girl on pedestal shoes"; and "Still I Rise" offers a steadily swelling rant of selfhood built on the back of an Anthrax & Public Enemy sample. Even by Adamson's high standards, As Above So Below is an exceptional record, sophisticated without curdling into shallow slickness, intelligent without condescending - by rights, the man should be a star, rather than a cult attraction. All he needs to do now is sell a few copies.

Rod Stewart

When We Were The New Boys

(Warner Bros. 9362-46792-2)

When We Were The New Boys finds Rod back doing what he does best, applying his own understated soul grain to a carefully-chosen set of covers by writers like Nick Lowe, Ron Sexsmith and Noel Gallagher. Less meticulously manicured than 1995's over-produced A Spanner In The Works, it has a light, frolicsome quality surprisingly becoming from a lad of 53 summers, particularly when Rod's in such familiar surroundings as "Ooh La La", re-recorded in tribute to his old mucker Ronnie Lane: in a folksy, Celtic setting, it makes more sense now than it did a quarter-century ago.

Nick Lowe's "Shelly My Love" is the best of the ballads, while Primal Scream's "Rocks" offers him the most well-tailored of raunch-rock threads. It's not all great - his version of Skunk Anansie's "Weak" is almost as unbearable as the original, while Graham Parker's "Hotel Chambermaid" is a bawdy romp that's a touch too Carry On Rockin' for comfort. And while Rod doesn't have to stretch to get the authentic yobbo tone for "Cigarettes And Alcohol", it's a fairly routine performance - so much so that I couldn't stop my attention drifting to the question of who would come out on top in a hypothetical ruck between Rod and Liam. Liam's got youth on his side, of course, but Rod looks in better condition these days. A better passer of the ball, too, I'd warrant.

Cleopatra

Comin' Atcha!

(WEA 3984-23356-2)

It's a weird world, especially for girl groups: I learn this week from the Internet that Charles Manson has become fixated with the Spice Girls, and spends all his time watching their videos - indeed, in a celebrity/sleaze confluence tasteless enough to gladden the heart of John Waters, Manson has apparently even agreed to a lethal injection, provided he gets to meet all of the girls in person beforehand. What an opportunity! But who, do you think, is Charlie's favourite Spice? After all, none of them has a swastika tattooed on her forehead.

"Who's your favourite Higgins sister?" doesn't have quite the same ring as "Who's your favourite Spice Girl?", but it's a query we'll probably all have to get used to over the coming year, unless some smart manager comes up with an even younger posse of girls than Cleopatra, heiresses apparent to the girl-group throne currently being fought over by the Saints and Spices. Madonna has signed the sisters to her Maverick label in America, and it's easy to see why: Comin' Atcha! is efficiently effervescent without offering the merest hint of innovation, from the opening "Cleopatra's Theme" - a statement of intent as blandly careerist as a Young Tory manifesto - to a closing cover of "I Want You Back" clearly intended to show just how high the girls are aiming. But ambition alone doesn't make for a particularly involving experience, and here it lends a hollow ring to the platitudinous concern of "The Way We Live Today", their ill-judged foray into conscience- soul.

LeAnn Rimes

Sittin' On Top Of The World

(Curb/London 5560202)

By strange coincidence, the rear-sleeve shot of the Higgins sisters on Comin' Atcha! features the identical kiss-blowing pose as the front cover of this latest album by LeAnn Rimes, the 15-year-old country-music sensation who sold an extraordinary $96 million worth of albums last year. Plastered with make-up like trailer-park jailbait, LeAnn has the shellac gaze of a Jerry Springer stooge, and her material is aimed squarely at that market too, an emotional landscape of fleeting leatherette passion, littered with song-titles like "Commitment" and "Insensitive".

On custom-built material like "How Do I Live" (amazingly, the second biggest-selling single of all time, after Whitney's "I Will Always Love You"), she demonstrates an easy command of New Country fundamentals, though it's a strangely prefabricated experience for a music that used to be the white folks' blues. Unlike the teen-oriented Cleopatra, one gets the impression that LeAnn's playing dress-up with grown-up music, and her appeal surely plays to that weird, suspect part of the American sensibility that dolls its eight-year-old daughters up in mascara and lipstick and has them sashay up and down beauty-contest catwalks. No wonder Charlie Manson prefers the Spice Girls - he may be sick, but he's not that creepy.

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