Music: Andy Gill's album round-up

CALEXICO The Black Light

(City Slang/EFA 08707-2)

Better known - though not that much better, one imagines - as the rhythm section of Arizona desert-rockers Giant Sand, bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino have a thriving multiple life on the side, also serving as members of OP8 and, more pertinently, working in their own right as Calexico, whose second album The Black Light is one of '98's more beguiling releases.

Comprising roughly equal parts instrumentals and songs, the album was conceived as a kind of aural storyboard tracking a wanderer through the Mexican border country, Burns and Convertino teasing a variety of moods from a dizzying array of instruments. Not surprisingly, it is highly evocative of several cinematic styles: a courtly blend of guitar, accordion and bowed bass, "Gypsy's Curse" is creepy Tex-Mex noir, perfect for a Tarantino or particularly a Robert Rodriguez movie, while "The Ride (Part II)" features a hybrid of European movie and South-western desert musics that sounds tailor-made for a Wim Wenders project.

Elsewhere, the duo's lounge/exotica leanings are well indulged in "Fake Fur", a blend of shaker, claves, double bass and steel guitar that sounds like an out-take from the work of Fifties lounge auteurs like Les Baxter and Martin Denny, and "Chach", a lazy shuffle with three mariachi trumpets circling round each other above a shifting bed of organ and piano, which uncannily replicates the style and spirit of Juan Esquivel, Baxter's and Denny's Mexican rival in the exotica market. More straightforward mariachi is included courtesy of "Minas De Cobre", while the combination of vibes and bowed bass in several tracks is reminiscent of Tim Buckley's relaxed folk-jazz style. Burns' vocals, meanwhile, clearly influenced as they are by the late Gram Parsons (another desert aficionado), bring a parched country flavour to most songs that is perfectly in keeping with the mood. It is the best sadcore release of the year so far, recommended to fans of Lambchop, Palace, Giant Sand, Smog and Rainer.

TRICKY Angels With Dirty Faces (Island CID 8071)

His third album leaves one wondering what exactly it was about Tricky that so captivated the critical imagination a few years back. Continuing the steep downward course of Pre-Millennium Tension, Angels With Dirty Faces features more of the same bad-guy manque babblings as before, along with a new strain of incoherent ranting against the perceived iniquities of the record business.

"In this industry full of vomit/ My voodoo make 'em sick," he claims in "6 Minutes", sweeping dead rappers into his argument without really making a point: surely, if it is already full of vomit, the last thing the industry needs is his emetic voodoo? "Money Greedy" seems, if anything, even more confused, Tricky complaining about that latterday pit of evil, the music business awards ceremony, for heaven's sake. "Remember we used to sit in the Brits/Never won any awards/That's not what we used to look towards," he fulminates tetchily. Which may be true, but hardly seems worth writing a song about; after all, he believed in the awards enough to attend the function in the first place.

It is not just the sour-grapes tone of the album that depresses, however - that would be bearable if the music were more engaging or intriguing, but Angels With Dirty Faces is just more of the same tedious looping grooves, suffering seriously diminishing returns. It boggles the mind as to why (tax affairs apart) Tricky needed to visit so many famous studios to scrape together such slight pieces: Bearsville in Woodstock, Donald Fagen & Gary Katz's Room With A View in New York, Daniel Lanois' Kingsway in New Orleans, Compass Point in the Bahamas, Christchurch in Bristol ... rarely can so many Air Miles have been accrued to so little purpose. The best track, by a distance, is "Broken Homes", the collaboration with Polly Harvey on which a gospel choir and Marc Ribot's guitar help to put flesh on the bones of Tricky's idea. Apart from that, this is just a dreary collection of emotionally narcissistic, musically ill-fitting, poorly-arranged (if arranged at all) tracks whose aim seems to be less to convey some sense of Tricky's alienation than to alienate his audience. In that respect at least, he succeeds.

MIKE OLDFIELD Tubular Bells - Remastered 25th Anniversary Edition (Virgin CDVX 2001)

Also reissued from the same period and label as Rock Bottom is the Remastered Edition of Tubular Bells, upon which the Virgin empire was founded. The remastering hasn't changed much - except that, heard with digital clarity, the entry of MC Viv Stanshall sounds shockingly abrupt. Mike Oldfield's genius lay in realising that cyclical minimalist music could be more commercially appealing than the likes of Young, Reich and Glass had imagined; but where James Brown, who had a similar insight around the same time, realised his vision in repetitive rhythmic structures, Oldfield effected a more baroque, European realisation of the principle.

Oldfield was more melodically than rhythmically oriented, as evidenced by the crushingly dull beats plodded through on Tubular Bells. The first side, with its enigmatic keyboard cycles, is still bearable after all these years, but the second side is a bore, particularly when those "bagpipe guitars" start their vapid skirling. What strikes one is how laboured it sounds, compared to the sophistication of modern rhythm sequencers, with all those notes marching away rigidly on all those different instruments. A landmark recording, but with the motive power of a landmark, too.

ROBERT WYATT Rock Bottom (Hannibal HNCD 1426) Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (Hannibal HNCD 1427)

The absurd presumption of Tricky and his tiny problems is brought into contrast by the reissue of Robert Wyatt's 1974 masterpiece of "drones and songs", Rock Bottom, and its 1975 follow-up Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, works which deal more maturely and therapeutically with larger problems, Wyatt having written and recorded the first as he was recuperating from the fall that left him crippled.

None of the pieces on Rock Bottom refers directly to that event, Wyatt instead using the opportunity to consider what might be called his own spiritual position. The album tracks the flux of emotions, the tug of hidden currents which swirl beneath the surface calm, brilliantly evoking their amorphous, ever-changing ways through the shifting drones and lyrics which slip back and forth between nonsensical baby-talk and romantic honesty. Made at a time when heavy-metal cock-rock was at its height, it is an open, vulnerable record, non-aggressive in the extreme and ambient before its time. Every home should have one.

Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard is less impressive but still engaging, the "Richard" side sustaining something akin to the mood of its predecessor while the "Ruth" side showcases the tenor saxes of Gary Windo and Nisar Ahmed "George" Khan on a series of jazzier pieces that includes a lovely version of Charlie Haden's "Song For Che" - not so much stranger as harder, more solidly sculpted, compared to the liquid moods of Rock Bottom.

BUCKETHEAD Colma (CyberOctave COCD45380)

Guitar virtuoso Brian "Buckethead" Carroll is so named for his stage outfit, an ensemble featuring a white face-mask and, as headgear, an inverted KFC bucket (the family feast, one presumes) - surely the most striking new image since Devo donned their flowerpots.

Though more usually to be found squeezing out sparks in a variety of stylistic locations from techno-metal to dub and funk, Colma finds Buckethead in reflective mood, using the dry, neutral tone favoured by jazz guitarists on a series of discreet instrumentals inspired by the city of that name, a place apparently famous for its cemeteries. And boy, does it show: tracks like "Ghost" and "Hills Of Eternity" are ruminative, sluggish pieces sprinkled with limpid droplets of guitar, while the title-track itself closes proceedings like the twinkle of a long-dead star.

There's a relaxed jouissance to a few of the performances, some of which resemble the psychedelic languor of the solo albums of Neu! guitarist Michael Rother, but as the album progresses, Buckethead slips deeper into pointless MOR noodling like "Sanctum", the kind of masturbatory yawn-a- thon which reaffirms that music is, as a rule, too important to be left to musicians.

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