Music: Andy Gill on Albums

The Jesus and Mary Chain

Munki

(Creation CRECD232)

It says a lot about the Jesus and Mary Chain that, even though this eighth album clings tenaciously to the style with which they opened their career a dozen or more years ago, it still manages to sound more vital and essentially rock'n'roll than the plodding progress of Embrace's debut. Maybe it's because the Mary Chain remain obsessed with the form in a way which seems simply beyond the Yorkshire group's understanding, bookending Munki with the scuzzy contradictions of "I Love Rock'n'Roll" and "I Hate Rock'n'Roll". They realise that, to really love it, it's necessary to recognise its worst aspects for what they are.

This, their first album since 1994's Stoned and Dethroned, is by no means the Mary Chain's best, but there are enough priceless moments to reward old fans for their faith, notably the sullen uncoiling of "Cracking Up", one of several moments of unapologetic self-revelation: "They said I was a freak/I am/They said I was in-com-plete/I am a freak". Clearly, the band have a much firmer understanding of their own position these days. "I'm a bad motherfucker now, but I once was cool," sings Jim Reid in "Birthday", carrying the line off with characteristic insouciance whilst a lovely celeste/glockenspiel sound picks grace notes at the edges of the melody, in Spector fashion.

It's not a complete success, of course: the great riffs are rarer than they should be, and the Beach Boy-inspired air of mellow poignancy is harder to locate here than before, but their grasp of the little details, like the shaker and tambourine percussion that tugs at many of the grooves, is better than ever. And in the self-reflective "Never Understood", they capture the essential thrill of that first seductive brush with rock'n'roll as well as any band around.

Embrace

The Good Will Out

(Hut CDHUT46)

Swathed in impossible expectations, Embrace's debut album arrives a little too late to make the kind of impact that might justify its tardiness. It'll doubtless sell well, given their lumbering momentum, but there's an unavoidable sense of their chasing after the carnival some time after it's gone, sweeping up what's left of that glum strain of Britpop that crosses the Verve with Oasis, and trying to pass it off as quality merchandise.

It won't do - not least because of the manifold shortcomings of vocalist Danny McNamara, whose bland, pallid singing fails to animate the group's slight melodies in the manner of a Gallagher or an Ashcroft, slumping into the lumpen when it should be uplifting. Nor, indeed, do their unfathomably bad arrangements help matters: theirs appears to be a musical philosophy that believes a song's essential dullness can be disguised by simply adding more to it - more guitars, some horns, maybe a stack of background vocals lah-lah-ing away tediously - in an orgy of baseless self-regard. It's all so unimaginative and laborious, with little grasp of the grace, zest or whimsy that elevates journeyman pop into the higher realms.

The result is tracks like the latest version of "All You Good Good People", whose sub-Oasean pomp is rendered all the more second-hand by sluggish trumpets fanfaring the group's feverish barking up the wrong tree; or, even worse, "I Want The World", an over-inflated blimp of ambition that contains little of substance to support their aspirations. For despite all their boasting, there's scant evidence of any musical ambition on The Good Will Out; Embrace are apparently happy to continue chasing a retro-pop dream that has itself already become irredeemably retro. The bandwagon went thataways, lads.

Elliott Smith

Either/Or

(Domino WIGCD51)

If there's such a thing as a sadcore superstar, Elliott Smith must be that oxymoronic presence, especially after the widespread dissemination of his quiet talents through the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. This third solo album features the usual sadcore stylings - strummed guitars, hoarse, understated vocals, and drums that jut into the songs like rocks perilously half-hidden beneath the emotional waves that course through them. There's an intense sense of alienation about songs like "Alameda", "Angeles" and "Rose Parade", in which Smith gathers together observations of the world about him without ever seeming to connect with it. "Alameda", for instance, is a quiet frenzy of emotional bad faith, knotted together with the pay-off line "If you're alone it must be you that wants to be apart".

Smith's approach appears to be one of timid misanthropy, wracked with self-loathing: he may have little faith in humanity in general, but it's a fair bet that he hates himself more. Either/Or ultimately leaves you with a powerful sense of a life almost painfully over-examined. But it's indicative of his skill that a song like "Pictures Of Me", in which a shy recluse chides himself for "flirting with the flicks" (his "Miss Misery" was nominated for an Oscar, and performed at the Academy Awards ceremony), should function just as well as a song about the temptations of pornography. It's impossible to tell whether he's talking about fame or Aids when he concludes, "Everybody's dying just to get the disease".

Heather Nova

Siren

(V2 VVR1001872)

Heather Nova seems to have undergone something of a Morissette make-over since 1995's engaging Oyster, which probably makes good commercial sense, but rather undersells her abilities.

Besides which, she's not the world's most natural rock chick - her talents are subtler than this new style requires, much more suited to the folk- rock lilt of "Valley Of Sound" and the lovely trip-folk closer "Not Only Human". The new, heavier approach results in Nova sounding slightly more generic, rather like Meredith Brooks - especially on the everywoman anthem "I'm The Girl", a more refined variation on the "Bitch" theme that finds Heather sizing herself up against Siren, Godiva, Medusa, Joan Of Arc and Georgia O'Keefe: an attractive enough prospect, snakes aside.

Nova never strays too far from her basic themes of self-discovery, assertiveness and romantic infatuation, fine when applied to a simple effusion of intimacy like "London Rain", but less convincing on a track like "Avalanche", where the hook - "You look like the avalanche I need" - suggests the rather melodramatic emotional expectations involved.

Amon Tobin

Permutation

(Ninja Tune zenCD 36)

Far more energetic than his two moody contributions to Ninja Tune's recent FunKungFusion suggested, Amon Tobin's follow-up to Bricolage finds him firmly on a jazz-jungle tip, with track after track essaying complex jazz breakbeat variations with considerable bravado. The opener, "Like Regular Chickens", is typical, its relaxed breakbeat snap embellished with jazz drum flourishes, vibes, and the occasional smear of soundtrack strings; it's like Buddy Rich arranged by Henry Mancini, which is an ambitious enough blend of styles, although subsequent drum-heavy outings such as "Bridge" and "Reanimator" can stretch your attention a little too far.

But when it works, it works beautifully: "Nightlife", the track most likely to crop up in a Hollywood action movie, slips smoothly between spooky night-club noir and more frantic bebop junglism, while the tunnel- breakout epic "Escape" uses a delightful avant-jazz sax scribble and looming clouds of piano over a meticulous, metallic rhythm matrix to evoke the appropriate mood of claustrophobic tension. An object lesson in how to derive effective emotional impact from bravura sequencing.

TOP 10s

SINGLES

1 C'est la Vie B'WITCHED

2 The Boy is Mine BRANDY & MONICA

3 Horny MOUSSE T VS BRANDY

4 Feel It TAMPERER FEAT. MAYA

5 Under the Bridge/Lady Marmalade ALL SAINTS

6 Come Back to What you Know EMBRACE

7 Dance the Night Away MAVERICKS

8 Stranded LUTRICIA MCNEAL

9 Last Thing on My Mind STEPS

10 How Do I Live LEANN RIMES

ALBUMS

1 Where We Belong BOYZONE

2 Blue SIMPLY RED

3 Talk on Corners THE CORRS

4 Life Thru a Lens ROBBIE WILLIAMS

5 International Velvet CATATONIA

6 All Saints ALL SAINTS

7 Urban Hymns THE VERVE

8 Ray of Light MADONNA

9 My Way - the Best of FRANK SINATRA

10 The Best of... JAMES

JAZZ AND BLUES ALBUMS

1 The Very Best of Latin Jazz VARIOUS ARTISTS

2 Blue for You NINA SIMONE

3 The Robert Johnson Songbook PETER GREEN

4 Piano Moods OSCAR PETERSON

5 Kind of Blue MILES DAVIS

6 My Baby Just Cares for Me NINA SIMONE

7 Baduizm ERYKAH BADU

8 Mad About the Boy DINAH WASHINGTON

9 The Best of ELLA FITZGERALD

10 Tokyo '96 JARRETT ETC

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