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Pop Albums: New releases

Various Artists

Chemical Reaction (Afrodesia AFRCD 01)

Chemical Reaction perhaps represents the Sound Of Young Britain in the late '90s, collecting together as it does a half-dozen of The Chemical Brothers' remixes along with a handful of contributions from a few of their colleagues in the Big Beat scene. In its cutting-edge confluence of rock and dance elements, it's indicative of a strain of British pop culture which refuses to acknowledge the supposed barriers between genres - but rather than being made by rock bands adding a soupcon of disco or hip-hop to their sound it's more like rock music made by DJs.

This sounds the case even when the original tracks were made by bona fide bands: the source material for the Chemicals' remix of Primal Scream's "Jailbird", for instance, is all but completely obscured under a welter of additional sounds and effects, the basic groove stripped-down and strapped to a crunching beat, with Bobby Gillespie's voice making only the most perfunctory of appearances.

At their best, there's a persuasive blend of power and invention in the duo's remixes of Sabres Of Paradise's Tow Truck, Leftfield & Lydon's Open Up and St Etienne's "Like A Motorway" - the latter, in particular, develops a relaxed surge of forward motion perfectly in keeping with its subject.

Neil Young & Friends

The Bridge School Concerts, Vol. One (Reprise 9362-46824-2)

The Bridge School is the children's charity founded and funded by Neil Young and his wife Pegi, whose own children suffer from the severe disabilities which the school hopes to alleviate through assistive technology and specialist care. To help fund The Bridge, the couple have also organised a series of annual concerts with some of the biggest names in rock, contributions from 15 of whom comprise this benefit album.

A splendid cause, then; but unfortunately, the concerts' all-acoustic nature rather denudes the album's impact. There's an intrinsic piety to acoustic music - something to do with its sonic purity and supposed direct access to the soul - which can grate under accumulation, and I'm afraid that's what happens here. Guitars thrum busily and voices chide earnestly, but there's little sense of pleasure about these dutiful performances.

Apart from Beck, Pearl Jam and Ministry, the performers are all drawn from the post-hippy soft-rock continuum that links Don Henley and Tom Petty to Patti Smith and Elvis Costello.

Despite a line-up that includes Simon & Garfunkel, Bowie and The Pretenders, it's not, frankly, an album you'll want to play too often.

Alabama 3

Exile On Coldharbour Lane Elemental/Geffen ELM-40 CD)

They're from Brixton, not Alabama, and there's considerably more than three of them. Alabama 3's deceptions don't end there: their last single was packaged as a facsimile of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Deja Vu, and their music lays claim to transatlantic influences not usually visited upon south London folk. Exile On Coldharbour Lane is a thick, steaming stew of Southern swamp-funk, country and western, Baptist revivalism, British techno and Maoist socialism, served up with rare fervour and more than a little medicine-show hokum.

There's a moralistic tone to an album equally dedicated to R&B and ethical living: most Alabama 3 songs deliver sermons decrying drugs, guns, booze and bourgeois materialism, but there's a churning undertow of pleasure to songs like "Converted", "Woke Up This Morning" and "Bourgeoisie Blues" which counterbalances the slightly starchy attitude.

There's a hackneyed religious schtick which grates after half a dozen songs, but enough is going on in the music to sustain interest till the end.

Celine Dion

Let's Talk About Love (Epic 489159 2)

All bets are now off regarding the coveted Christmas number one album: having shifted 2.5 million copies of her last album in the UK alone, Celine Dion's taking no chances with this follow-up, playing the celebrity guest card with shameless enthusiasm. Let's Talk About Love includes well-judged collaborations with both Carole King and The Bee Gees, a quite ghastly duet with Pavarotti on I Hate You Then I Love You, and most significantly, an equally dire duet with Barbra Streisand - the old queen effectively anointing her successor, perhaps having correctly assessed one-time pretender Mariah Carey as a bit of a one-trick pony.

That, clearly, is the territory to which Dion is laying claim here. For despite the occasional sassy swingbeat groove, the general feel on Let's Talk About Love is of a Broadway diva dedicated to knocking 'em dead in the aisles, rather than on the dancefloor. Would that Dion herself demonstrated a little restraint. She undoubtedly possesses a remarkable voice, but like most of her peers, wields it in profligate manner, offering a tremulous caricature of emotion that's about as convincing as the heavily airbrushed cover photo.