Black Grape

It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah

Radioactive RAD 11224

And how, you'd be forgiven for thinking, might Shaun Ryder have any idea about that? Last time he was spotted, Ryder was adding an extra level of embarrassment to The Word, stumbling around a dancefloor in a stoned stupor clutching Zippy from Rainbow, following an interview of imponderable incoherence. Who would have guessed that this casualty of rock's most spectacular self-inflicted crash'n'burn episode of recent years would come back with... well, anything, really, let alone an album that's as stuffed with good grooves and dark intentions as this?

The achievement is even more staggering given Ryder's chosen bandmates: another ex-junkie/dealer/ chancer, ragga-rapper Kermit, formerly of the Ruthless Rap Assassins; and wide-eyed dancing sprite Bez, held over from Happy Mondays like some shamanic totem. Those in the know predicted even darker times for the loose-willed singer, but It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah is such a resounding triumph that you instinctively start looking around for the magic ingredients, which come in the form of Ryder's co-producers Danny Saber and Stephen Lironi - the former a hip hop specialist, the latter a former Altered Image.

Between them, they've come up with the most infectious dance-rock grooves this side of Screamadelica or the first Arrested Development album - rolling, slippery, good-timey things stuffed with blues-harps, electric sitars and slide guitars, over which the stumblebum poet and his rowdy ragga chum chant back and forth about the iniquities of organised religion (the singles "Reverend " and "In the Name of the Father"), disillusion and betrayal ("Kelly's Heroes" and "Yeah Yeah Brother"), and the allegedly dangerous delights of Temazepam, the wobbly-eggs drug ("Tramazi Parti"). And that, as they say, is just the first side.

Credit, too, must go to bespoke American mixer Tom Lord-Alge, for a little letting-out here and taking-in there. Mostly the latter, by the sound of it: apart from Ryder's slouch of a voice, there's nothing remotely baggy about the album, which comes tailored instead in a garish pimpsuit funk-rock with some very snazzy accessories. It's by far the most stylish item in the shop at the moment, and at a time when British pop is peering ever deeper into the past, it manages to be both the most authentic re- creation so far of the swaggering spirit of peak-period Stones, and the most joyous reaffirmation of faith in pop's future. Quite amazing, all things considered.

The most satisfying so far of the Rebirth of Cool compilations, this offers the best one-stop snapshot of the state of the contemporary studio art, bringing together spooky trip hop from Tricky, Portishead and Massive Attack, slinky soul from Jhelisa, dizzily dextrous sample- collages from any number of crews, and even managing to slip in a swampy slide-guitar piece by Ben Harper - albeit one tailored to fit by the Dust Brothers. Despite the Anglocentric nature of the headlined artists, pains have clearly been taken to represent the international nature of the genre, with contributions from France (rapper MC Solaar), Germany (groove-unit Kruder & Dorfmeister) and Japan (sample-crew UFO). On this showing, the globe is simply oozing quality grooves from every pore.

Not so much the follow-up to Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart as a brief holding action, this mini-album makes more widely available the five tracks from the Girly Sounds demo-tape which originally began the Liz Phair buzz, bulked out with three tracks scraped together from previous albums, radio shows and the like.

The demo tracks are certainly arresting in their own right: bleak, bare- bones acoustic numbers which effectively amount to her Nebraska, with brittle accounts of small-town tedium and big-city disgust: "California" offers her blunt account of why she left the state, while "South Dakota" portrays the rural backwoods as wide-open in more ways than one, a place where boredom frays the edges of morality - "Hey, we're going to a rodeo town/ I'm gonna get drunk and fuck some cows." The radio track "Animal Girl" continues the dyspeptic slacker approach, with a mournful piano piece depicting a typical Californian beach-bimbo, while a cover version of The Vapours' masturbation ode "Turning Japanese" is handled with appropriate spunky gusto.

Having made substantial inroads into the mainstream with the diverse Six Wheels on my Wagon, Fluke's subsequent bout of remixing for the likes of New Order and Bjork has left them slightly hungover for Oto, on which they've pretty much abandoned the varied tonal colouration of their earlier work in favour of ever-cleaner lines and ever-slimmer melodies. The result is an album so smooth and characterless it all but slips down without leaving a smear of a tune remaining.

The single "Bullet" is typical, one of those shimmering, slow-burning techno tracks that only develops a kick-drum three minutes in, when it's too late to bother with; "OK", likewise, is just a particularly uneventful branch-siding off Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express. The words, too, aren't working: far from songs, they're the kind of epigrammatic phrases bands come up with when they realise they have to provide some kind of lyrical focus for what might otherwise be background music. They know it, too, whispering or mumbling the words as if embarrassed at having to stain the abstract compositional purity with concrete images.

Despite David Thomas being the sole remaining founder member, this is still Ubu in more than name only: the new musicians have preserved the squealing electronic avant-rock dynamic of the original band, with the grand, malevolent sweep of tracks like "Memphis" and the instrumental "Horse" as effective as ever in the brooding atmosphere department. Indeed, in the case of synthesiser wielder Robert Wheeler, Ubu have unearthed a talent to match their original white-noise expert Allen Ravenstine: Wheeler's theremin solo on the title-track is every bit as spine-tingling as anything from The Modern Dance.

Thomas himself, meanwhile, still operates on the cusp of art and absurdity, chirping with bohemian gusto about wanting to be a suitcase ("Ray Gun Suitcase") and having a hoover in his head ("Vacuum in my Head") while all around him chaos apparently reigns. On the downside, the production is decidedly odd even for this bizarre a band: the self-produced mix sounds strangely thin and twisted in places, lacking the confident rumble of classic Ubu. And the cover version of The Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl" is, well, unusual, to put it mildly. Or useless, to put it less mildly.

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