Pop: Andy gill on albums

Propellerheads, "Decksanddrumsandrockandroll"

(Wall Of Sound WALLCD015)

And the Big Beat goes on, with this year's main contenders being Propellerheads, the Bath duo who are not, apparently, to be confused with the Swedish music-software designers of the same name. To Swedes, the name is equivalent to the American term "pointy-heads", meaning clever chaps - a description which fits Alex Gifford and Will White quite snugly here.

It's notoriously difficult, given their relative lack of live appearances, for studio-bound mixmasters like these to acquire a public image, unless they indulge in media-friendly stunts like purchasing a tank or having their teeth capped in platinum; but since the 1996 success of their Adidas advert theme "Dive", the Propellerheads have spent the past year cleverly developing a more unified sonic character around the theme of espionage.

First there was their skittering '60s spy-movie pastiche "Spybreak", closely followed by the collaboration with David Arnold on "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", the most organic marriage of techno and orchestral modes on Arnold's Shaken And Stirred album of Bond-movie themes. More recently, they've cemented the spook association by recording with Shirley Bassey, a singer inextricably linked with 007 themes.

The latter, however, may be a link too far, whatever its PR value: "History Repeating Itself" is one of the weaker tracks on this otherwise spry and punchy album of dance grooves, Bassey's histrionics going somewhat against the grain of the Propellerheads style, which blends loping basslines and trim, crunchy beats with organ stabs, bubbly synths, turntable scribbles and treated vocal samples.

The results, exemplified on the self-defining "Echo And Bounce", occupy the middle ground between hip-hop scratch and acid-house squelch, with a cute sideline in Jimi Tenor-style kitsch disco-funk on tracks like "Velvet Pants".

Mark Hollis, "Mark Hollis"

(Polydor 537688 2)

This may well turn out to be one of the albums of 1998, but as with all Hollis's output since Talk Talk's 1988 opus Spirit Of Eden, we won't really be able to tell for another year or two, so diffuse is the music it contains.

That album and its follow-up Laughing Stock were often (erroneously) compared to Astral Weeks, a record whose textural depth they emulated, though not its passion. With Hollis's first solo album proper, the process of diffusion continues further, with delicate, tentative settings based on acoustic guitar and piano, and serious, painfully sensitive vocals that often seem little more than prompts.

It certainly bears no relation to rock'n'roll, but instead seems to aspire to the condition of classical music, with the enigmatic, faintly quizzical wind arrangements of tracks such as "A Life (1895-1915)" and "The Daily Planet" particularly reminiscent of the open, asymmetric patternings of the American minimalist Morton Feldman.

Like Feldman, Hollis prefers to let his melodies accrete over time, like dust settling, rather than be forcefully stated. The results play strange tricks with time: though few of these eight tracks last under five minutes, they barely seem to have begun before they're finished.

Nick Lowe, "Dig My Mood"

(Demon FIENDCD 939)

Nick Lowe's tenth solo album finds him continuing to hone the country stylings that have fascinated him for more than a decade now. Its simple, spare settings have been pared down to the bone, with the result that its most affecting songs - Lowe's own "Faithless Lover" and Henry McCullough's achingly tragic "Failed Christian" - cut to the very quick.

It's possible to imagine the slow, resigned "Faithless Lover" being sung by either Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash, an indication of Lowe's early Sun Studios leanings here; and if Cash hasn't already covered the pessimist's apology "Man That I've Become", it can only be a matter of time. Hank Williams, likewise, must be smiling down from atop the Tower Of Song upon the understated, graceful "I Must Be Getting Over You".

Elsewhere, Lowe broadens his stylistic outlook slightly with the mild gospel of "Lead Me Not" and the mellow R&B of "You Inspire Me", which suggest the influence respectively of The Swan Silvertones and Charles Brown. The overall impression is of a kind of homage to postwar roots music - not for nothing, perhaps, is the album dedicated to his parents.

Mase, "Harlem World"

(Arista/Puff Daddy 73017 2)

Like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Mase initially made his name rapping on others' records, before releasing an album of his own which debuted at No. 1 in the American album charts. The comparisons end there: unlike Snoop, Mase has little to offer by way of vocal expression - like The Notorious BIG, his predecessor in the Puff Daddy stable, he reduces rap virtually to the level of speech, droning on monotonously about the usual de-socialised, dollar-centric, hand-me-down concerns of gangsta-rap. He doesn't even seem concerned about his lack of originality, either, admitting in "Take What's Yours" that "I'm a-gonna take 'em where Biggie took 'em before".

The air of over-familiarity extends to the tedious, unfunny skits and libidinally-flattering phone messages that are obligatory on rap albums these days, and to the productions (mostly by Puff Daddy's studio team), which manage to plumb new depths of unoriginality by sampling Michael Jackson. As for Mase's lyrical input, the sole cut of interest is "I Need To Be", a warning about the dangers of under-age sex. "The more I caressed her," admits the rapper, "the more I felt like a molester."

Crustation with Bronagh Slevin, "Bloom"

(Jive CHIP 184)

A Bristol trip-hop trio augmented by an Irish singer, the highly-touted Crustation make most of the right moves, but are ultimately stymied by the genre's self-fulfilling world-weariness. Bloom begins well, with the treated breakbeat, jazzy bassline and merest breath of flute that make up the atmospheric instrumental "Hey", but by the album's close, the lack of rhythmic differentiation has become enervating, and Bronagh Slevin's persistently downbeat lyrics have successfully cast a pall over proceedings. Unfortunately, when someone is constantly singing about how "boredom envelops me" and "I've got to escape this melancholy", that mood quickly transfers itself to the listener. Then again, it doesn't seem to have done Radiohead any harm.

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