Much as I love the bloke - the finest blues guitarist ever produced by these islands, and all that - and much as I sympathise with his problems, I'm afraid this just isn't good enough. It's not so much a matter of guitar technique or performance, but poor vocals throughout, and arrangement decisions which are eccentric, to say the least. Compared to Clapton's comparable retro exercises, for example, which are always neat and efficient, albeit a little bloodless at times, these are just half-baked ideas which don't come off: the gospelly backing vocals on "Phonograph Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" are teeth-clenchingly inappropriate, while the sprightly minstrel-band arrangement of "32-20 Blues" is cornball enough to summon up the dark days of British "trad" jazz.
In general, the simpler the tracks are, the better. Those on which Green and Watson just sit and pick are the most rewarding, perhaps because they're closer to Johnson's originals; there's something quietly satisfying about "Ramblin' On My Mind" and "Walkin' Blues", and their version of "Love In Vain Blues" - the same one covered by the Stones on Let It Bleed - has a lovely, lonely atmosphere, right up to the point when those gospel backing vocals come in on the chorus and ruin it. In too many cases here, it's as if someone has come along later and decided, as an afterthought, that what these old blues songs really need is a touch of jessying-up here and there.
CURVE Come Clean Universal/Estupendo
Having watched from the sidelines as Garbage cleaned up (no pun intended) with the exact same musical formula they developed half a decade earlier, Dean Garcia and Toni Halliday have done the sensible thing and re-formed their seminal sampler-rock duo Curve. And judging by the toughened pop gloss of most of the songs on Come Clean, they don't intend to let this second chance pass them by.
Tracks such as the searing "Chinese Burn" and the catchy "Coming Up Roses" are as commercial as any they've recorded, and although it's mostly comprised of the same kind of sculpted noise as their earlier records, there's a more confident swagger to the album - the difference, I suppose, between experimental tentativeness and pop confirmation. The way they're not afraid to borrow familiar melodies, hoisting Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" further into space on "Forgotten Sanity", and placing the James Bond Theme in further peril on "Alligators Getting Up", also speaks volumes about their approach now. The subject-matter covers roughly the same territory as before, too: erotic exhilaration ("Dirty High"); emotional apprehension ("Something Familiar"); and creeping dehumanisation ("Forgotten Sanity"), rendered with the kind of ice-queen chill not heard since Siouxsie Sioux's heyday. A welcome return.
LO-FIDELITY ALLSTARS How To Operate With A Blown Mind (Skint BRASSIC8CD)
The Lo-Fi Allstars' sound is scraped from the streets of Britain, a warped blend of hip-hop, house and rock which
fits comfortably into none of those categories, but adopts the most powerful aspects of each as it barges its way along. Overlaid with "cohesive lyrical maps" sneered out with Lydon-esque contempt by rapper Wrekked Train, these 11 grooves are simultaneously disorienting and seriously propulsive. Though there are obviously influential precedents in the work of Americans such as The Beasties and The Dust Brothers, How To Operate With A Blown Mind couldn't really have come from anywhere else but the UK, so well-fused is the Allstars' musical alloy.
Last year's breakthrough singles "Kool Roc Bass" and "Disco Machine Gun" are both included here, the latter re-named "Blisters On My Brain"; they're as pumped and muscular as any heavy rock riff, and as infectious as a tube train carriage in winter. Apart from "I Used To Fall In Love", on which the rock guitar and burring organ combine a little too leadenly, the rest of the album is equally persuasive: the blend of fuzz clavinet and deep loping bass (courtesy of A One-Man Crowd Called Gentile, possibly the finest name in all of popular music, with the possible exception of Allstars' engineer The Many Tentacles) of "Kasparov's Revenge" is about as funky as white folks get, while the haunting "Nighttime Story" closes the album with a trip down a spooky deep-soul alleyway. The Allstars' pungent remix of American indie-rockers Pigeonhed's "Battle Flag", meanwhile, gives an indication of further possible transatlantic wrinkles to their sound.
UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH Almost Here
Has the Oxford Social Services Department been informed about the Yorke family? I only ask because Radiohead's Thom and his brother Andy, singer/songwriter with the hotly-tipped Unbelievable Truth, seem to have between them such a limitless fund of melancholy, one can but guess at the sheer hell their home life must have been. The inner sleeve photos in the
CD booklet for Almost Here offer a clear indication of the album's emotional territory, with their snatched glimpses of loneliness - empty rooms, blurred windows, grey sea. In one, the alienation is presumably so intense, a leg has been isolated from its owner.
So too with the music, which also fails to reach the feet, so concerned is it with not having a good time. "Got a problem, I can't solve it," sings Yorke on the opener "Solved", before taking the next 40 minutes to prove his point. Like formula grunge songs, these tracks tend to start very very quietly and intimately, before swelling to a pitch of maudlin intensity for the choruses; except that unlike grunge, there's no release - the pain is never cauterised, because the singer enjoys it too much to ever let it go.
This is the big difference between the Truth and American Music Club, with whom they're often compared: where AMC's Mark Eitzel routinely exceeds the boundaries of emotional discretion, wantonly reneging on the compact of intimacy struck between performer and listener, UT's songs never threaten to break their overly defined parameters. They're just too well-manicured, with their watercolour tints of strings and keys, and their carefully- chosen minor chords, to actually reach outside themselves and move you. More than once, I was reminded of Jackson Browne without the politics.
SIMPLY RED Blue (Eastwest 3984230972)
The sharp, downward curve of Mick Hucknall's recent career continues with Blue, quite the dullest record he's been involved with. It was begun, apparently, as a quickie covers album, but the Huckster couldn't stop himself writing, and nobody else managed to stop him including his new songs. Which is a shame, particularly in the
case of "To Be Free", where he can be found uttering such priceless gems as "To be is to feel and to be real is to see", and the excruciating assessment "To come is so organic unbelievable", which is rather more information than I personally required, thanks very much. Most of the original material suffers an excess of earnestness, not to mention a shortfall of decent tunes, and the mumsy, inoffensive nature of the settings leaves songs like "High Fives", his attempt at Chet Baker-style cool jazz, sounding just insipid.
Sadly, though, the covers are little better: Neil Young's "Mellow My Mind" is transformed here into MOR slush, and "The Air That I Breathe" (included twice, with a "Reprise" version featuring needlessly re-written lyrics) founders somewhere between duty and exultation. The best tracks by far - partly through having the best tunes, and partly through the affectionate conviction with which Hucknall attacks them - are the covers of Dennis Brown's "Ghetto Girl" and Gregory Isaacs' "Night Nurse". Perhaps he should have taken a leaf out of UB40's book and concentrated solely on the reggae covers - there must be enough little gems in The Paragons' back catalogue alone to keep him going for an album or two, surely?