RECORDS: POP

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Various Artists: Twentieth Century Blues - The Songs of Noel Coward (EMI, CD/tape). An attempt to do for Noel Coward what Red Hot and Blue did for Cole Porter in 1990, this is a selection of the quintessential Englishman's best known ditties, mostly from the Twenties and Thirties, interpreted by a wildly heterogeneous range of contemporary and contemporary- ish pop stars. The best reason to buy it is that all profits are going to the Red Hot Aids Charitable Trust: while there are some amusing tracks here, the overall lack of coherence makes for a frustrating listen.

Only a few of the performers really get inside their chosen song - notably the Pet Shop Boys, whose Neil Tennant organised the project, Marianne Faithfull, who has already released an album of her own called Twentieth Century Blues, and Suede, whose creepy "Poor Little Rich Girl" may be their most intriguing seven minutes yet. If you didn't know better, you'd think that Brett Anderson had written the lyrics himself.

Of the other tracks, Shola Ama and Texas sound like Shola Ama and Texas; Vic Reeves and Damon Albarn/ Michael Nyman compete to create the loopiest recording; and Paul McCartney and Bryan Ferry opt for period pastiches, complete with pre-war orchestration and the crackle of an antique gramophone.

It might have been a better idea if the contributing artists had put the songs on their own records. Taken together, all these approaches - less "extraordinary, how potent cheap music is" than "When you feel your song/ Is orchestrated wrong/ Why should you prolong/ Your stay?" - serve to make Coward seem dated, an artefact. And that's why this noble, fascinating and highly odd farrago is a failure. It doesn't encourage the listener to seek out more of Coward's compositions - except perhaps to hear them done properly.

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