Pop: Albums On Record

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Portishead Portishead Go! Beat 539 189-2

As with Bjork's latest album, Portishead are in danger here of becoming too generic. Portishead holds few surprises for anyone familiar with their Dummy debut - again, these are tortured torch-songs, rendered in tense, edgy manner by Beth Gibbons over slowly suffocating loops and breakbeats. The effect is rather like listening to an agora- phobic Eartha Kitt squirming in a straitjacket - morbidly fascinating, rather than aesthetically appealing; admirable, rather than enjoyable.

As before, the backings rely heavily on the musical vocabulary of TV and film scores, a series of emotional tints and hues which, rather than helping the songs unfold, impale them on skewers of unrequited desire - as track after track trudges along glumly on manacled drum-loops, it becomes clear that there's no relief from this pain, no happy ending. In this sense, it's slightly reminiscent of the Wu-Tang Clan's last album, on which the similarly static nature of the grooves held more social than emotional implications. Impressive stuff, but not an album I'll be returning to too often.

ROBERT WYATT

Shleep

Hannibal HNCD 1418

Hold on with all those year-end "best of" lists and Mercury Prize nominations, because Robert Wyatt's just gone and made the kind of record which leaves others trailing forlornly in its wake. Witty, humane, philosophical, endlessly epiphanic, and full of the most sheerly beautiful music I've heard so far this year.

Shleep is Wyatt's first release since 1991's Dondestan, and his best since 1974's Rock Bottom. But where that early masterwork plied mainly watery metaphors, this one applies itself to the air, with insights arriving courtesy of sparrows and swallows and dreams of flight. And, in the case of the opening track, "Heaps of Sheeps", dreams of sleep itself, as an insomniac Wyatt's attempt to lull himself by the traditional method of counting sheep jumping over a fence is stymied when the beasts simply pile up in a writhing heap where they land. It sounds ghastly, but with the help of Jamie Johnson and Brian Eno, Wyatt couches it in a glistening Bo Diddley beat that soothes away any lingering trauma.

Perhaps his insomnia is just as well, judging by the sombre nightmare of "Was a Friend": here, the singer finds his dreams stained with anxiety at re-encountering an old, disliked acquaintance, before waking and chiding himself for his apprehension: "Old wounds are healing," he acknowledges in the welcome light of day, "Faded scars are painless - just an itch." This kind of characteristically gentle but firm self-examination is developed to its fullest extent on "Free Will and Testament", a lovely spiral of introvert logic which sees Wyatt admitting "I cannot know what I would be if I were not me" before realising the horrible, determinist truth: "Demented forces push me madly round a treadmill/ Let me off please, I am so tired".

Musically, the album blends airy, ruminative jazz and drones in Wyatt's inimitable style, though the presence of Eno, Phil Manzanera and Paul Weller alongside Evan Parker and Annie Whitehead ensures that Shleep possesses an attractively eclectic surface. An acquired taste, perhaps, but if more high-profile releases involved a similar level of care and attention to mood, maybe they would lodge themselves as firmly in one's affections. Delightful.

BOB DYLAN

Time Out Of Mind

Columbia

Though his release schedule has seen steady activity through the Nineties, Dylan's last batch of original material was on 1991's Under the Red Sky, which found his writing degenerating into nursery-rhyme doggerel. Since then, his albums have featured out-takes, re-hashes of old numbers, and a couple of volumes of old folk-blues interpretations. Which places rather an undue spotlight on Time Out Of Mind, his new collection of songs.

Working once again with Daniel Lanois, who devised the shadowy, enticing atmosphere of his last truly great album, 1989's Oh Mercy, Dylan sticks closely to the blues stylings he paid homage to on Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Indeed, the songs themselves suggest that these days Dylan finds greater pleasure in manipulating the cliches of a classic form, rather than generating more arresting, innovative imagery, as he once did.

Lanois doesn't impose too heavily on what is effectively a low-key bar band style, and the results - particularly on blues shuffles like the frisky "Dirt Road Blues" - sound like nothing quite so much as a JJ Cale album, which is fine by me. At times the mood gets a trifle sepulchral, with organ and pedal steel guitar plodding though the more lachrymose songs, but the languid, 17-minute spoken blues "Highlands" closes the album on an agreeably wry note of reflective absurdity. A welcome return.

ROLLING STONES

Bridges To Babylon

Virgin V2-44712

Nothing - certainly not a shortfall of decent material - interrupts the lumbering progress of the Stones juggernaut these days. Not that Bridges to Babylon is that much worse than their other Nineties releases - with Don Was in the head producer's chair again, it's bound to be a respectable enough accumulation of raunch; but any album that features no fewer than three songs with Keith on lead vocals is clearly batting at less than full strength.

"Flip the Switch" is a typical Stones opener in "Start Me Up" style, the kind of thing they probably wrote in their sleep, and there are a few other reasonable examples of their brusque, peremptory riffing - most notably "Gun Face". The ballads are less effective: "Already Over Me" seems tired and ineffectual, and Keith's "Thief in the Night" and "How Can I Stop" end the album on a stuporous note.

The best tracks are those on which the band revert to their blues origins, such as "Might As Well Get Juiced", a loping funk-blues on which guest producers The Dust Brothers do their best to revive the sound of Willie Dixon's old Chess productions on which the Stones first cut their teeth. A fair to decent album, then, but not a great one.

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