Pop music: Andy Gill's round-up

PULP This Is Hardcore (Island CID 8066)

Of all the Britpop stars, it was always going to be Jarvis Cocker who would grapple most readily with encroaching maturity. Having dealt unflinchingly on previous albums with the more sordid aspects of sexuality, he's the only current pop wordsmith qualified to take on the great pop taboo of age, a nettle he grasps with some firmness on This Is Hardcore. So though the album is less instant, and less instantly classic, than Different Class, its increased depth pays extra dividends.

What's admirable about the album is the way it manages to deal with adult concerns - such as looming middle-age, separation, ennui, the responsibilities of manhood, and the cancerous creep of disillusion - without lapsing into either the adult musical vernacular of AOR slop that one associates with "grown-up" pop stars like Phil Collins, or the hip-uncle bandwagon-jumping of forever-youngsters like David Bowie.

It's a meticulous piece of work, both bigger and more ambitious than earlier Pulp records - with producer Chris Thomas bringing an appropriately widescreen presence to tracks like "The Fear" and "This Is Hardcore" - yet more microscopically-focused. Rather than apply a set style to everything, the music for each track is tailored precisely for mood and subject-matter, so that "Party Hard", a song about the lengths people will go to to convince themselves they're having fun, has the same air of desperate, mechanical hysteria as Bowie's Station To Station, while "Glory Days", a song which might help explain to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown just why so many young people should prefer to spend their days abed rather than cleaning toilets ("When you have seen how big the world is, how can you make do with this?"), seems like a sly parody of Springsteen's lumpen triumphalism.

The nature of manhood comes in for a more concentrated examination than usual in pop, with "I'm A Man" skewering the Loaded laddism that leads so swiftly to medallion-man middle-age, and "A Little Soul" offering an estranged father's moving entreaty to his son not to use him as a role model: "I look like a big man, but I've only got a little soul".

Perhaps the most directly autobiographical of the songs - in that its 33-year-old narrator has the same initials as Jesus - is "Dishes", a downbeat piece which finds Jarvis drying the dishes and pondering his ordinariness. It's typical of an album from which the familiar winks and raised eyebrows of Pulp-pop have been largely removed, in favour of more serious deliberation. Not for nothing does the final track, "The Day After the Revolution", conclude with the assertion, "Irony is over".

GEORGE MARTIN In My Life (Echo ECHCD20)

Has Sir George been at the Prozac? Claimed to be the final album of his illustrious production career, In My Life is, if nothing else, certainly a contender for most ludicrous record of the year, featuring as it does a series of grotesque mis-matches of MOR musicians and thespian celebs with poor unsuspecting Beatles songs. As if the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey mugging their way through - no, make that mugging, purely and simply - "Come Together" and "I Am the Walrus" might actually bring a valuable new insight to the material.

As you might expect, the album is a tentative mix of the gently batty and the cloyingly tasteful. It's possible to recognise the elements in each song which Sir George has been trying to bring out - the absurd (Carrey's "I Am the Walrus"), the unashamedly romantic (Celine Dion's "Here, There & Everywhere"), etc - but the town-crier version of "Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite" which Billy Connolly is required to do seems more than a trifle literal, while Sean Connery's wistful broguery on "In My Life" ends up about as camp as Julian Clary pitching a tent.

The best track is the instrumental version of "A Day in the Life" which finds Jeff Beck's liquid guitar lines freezing instantly behind him as he follows the vocal melody. It would be nice to say it was worth the price of admission alone, but it's impossible to recommend an album that includes not just Phil Collins and Jim Carrey, but John Williams, Bobby McFerrin and Vanessa Mae too.

DIRTY 3 Ocean Songs (Bella Union BELLACD3)

The title is a slight misnomer. This Australian trio's fourth album is an entirely instrumental affair - 10 semi-improvised studies on mainly oceanic themes, with titles like "Black Tide", "Distant Shore" and "Sea Above, Sky Below". Warren Ellis, occasional violinist with Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, tends to dictate the trio's direction and sound, though he's sympathetically partnered by guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, a descriptive, rather than simply rhythmic, percussionist.

Together, they manage to bring all the watery metaphors into play on Ocean Songs, with endless fathoms of yearning, tempestuous churnings of emotion, and here and there an unapologetic slump into the doldrums. The various pieces rarely follow a clear course, switching direction and character as unpredictably as the sea itself. Unafraid of atonality or pungent harmonic clashes, the musicians deliberately steer the good ship Dirty 3 into the kind of dangerous, dark waters most groups spend their careers avoiding, an exploratory courage that pays huge dividends on tracks like the enigmatic 16-minute-long "Deep Waters".

VARIOUS ARTISTS The Big Score (EMI 493 6292)

Quentin Tarantino has but to dip his toe into a dormant genre, and the ripples are felt throughout the zeitgeist. Merely by casting Pam Grier as Jackie Brown, he's effectively revived the entire blaxploitation genre, certainly as regards music: Rykodisc are reissuing the original Bobby Womack soundtrack to Across 110th Street, along with a single-disc compilation of Quincy Jones's soundtracks to two Sidney Poitier vehicles, In The Heat of the Night and They Call Me Mister Tibbs, while compilations of jazz- funk grooves with titles like Pulp Fusion are appearing with shameless haste.

The Big Score is the king of this particular urban jungle, though, with 18 tracks stretching from "Shaft" at the start of the Seventies, through to "Car Wash" and War's "Flying Machine", the genre's last gasps some five or six years later. It effectively contains the roots of the entire acid-jazz scene, presented with a sort of slick, cool naivete that's so much more winning than the usual self-serving jazz-funk doodlings. The top in-car soundtrack for this summer in the city, surely.

CAPPADONNA The Pillage (Epic EPC 488850 2)

Another week, another Wu-Tang Clan offshoot - though compared with last week's stupendous Killah Priest album, Cappadonna's solo debut is small beer indeed. For one thing, the highly-touted young rapper has a poor grasp of vocal dynamics, rendering everything in the same dull, monotonous diatribe. There's rarely even pause for breath, let alone thought, in these raps, and it shows in the record's narrow horizons: by comparison with Killah Priest's outward-looking cosmic-consciousness lyrics, Cappadonna's seem mired in the same tedious round of criminality and averted blame that threatens to make hip-hop almost as boring and conservative as indie music. Does he really think, for instance, that his account of drug-deal paranoia, "Run", adds anything to the already huge corpus of work on that subject? Overall, there's a general feeling of inchoate rage spraying unchecked, and largely unexamined, from a burst pipe.

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