Rock: Andy Gill on albums

VICTORIA WILLIAMS

Musings Of A Creek Dipper

Atlantic 83072-2

With Musings Of A Creek Dipper, Victoria Williams makes a quantum jump beyond her previous releases, which suffered at times from an overdose of whimsy. Here, the arrangements are less sentimental, and her songs more focused on the moment than before. The major change, however, is in her voice: the effect of multiple sclerosis on her hands means Williams has to tune her guitar strings more slackly now, and she has accordingly been writing songs in a lower key than usual, and singing them somewhat deeper than her usual pixillated Olive Oyl squawk.

The new style suits her new material well. The debilitations of the last few years have left plenty of time for quiet reflection, particularly since her relocation to the Mojave Desert, and there's a strong sense of calm fortitude to tracks like "Let It Be So", where Captain Picard's catchphrase is appropriated for a song of stoic acceptance. Her religious faith surfaces in the strain of pantheism that runs through songs like "Tree Song", a thumb-piano arrangement of the Nat "King" Cole standard "Nature Boy", and "Kashmir's Corn", a rumination inspired by a midnight collusion she observed between her horse and rabbits. Though she seems more at home in the present than previously, the wistful lure of the past is felt in "Train Song", a love letter to those old trains that had old conductors waving to children from the caboose at the rear, the disappearance of which makes for a typically Williamsian symbol of degenerate "progress".

The musical palette employed on the album is much broader than before, too, retaining her basic rural elements - banjo, pedal steel guitar, dulcimer - but adding carefully-chosen tonal tints of cello, vibes, marimba, kalimba, bass clarinet and Chamberlin (a Sixties keyboard instrument akin to the mellotron, with a spooky selection of wind and string voices), with Brian Blade's jazzy drum style lending a particularly light, buoyant feel to even the darker material. On some tracks, former Prince cohorts Wendy & Lisa are drafted in to lend a funkier feel than usual, though without overpowering the well-rooted nature of Williams's songs. It's undoubtedly her best album by far, her once flimsy style tempered by adversity into something much tougher and enduring; as she sings in "Let It Be So", "the trials of the past, they can only make us better, put our feet on solid ground".

VARIOUS ARTISTS

20th Century Blues

EMI CDP 053

Without wishing to be uncharitable about an Aids charity project, it must be said that this compilation of pop stars' versions of Noel Coward songs does neither composer nor performers any great favours. Based on the dubious assertion that Coward was "the first British pop star and style icon" (talk about damning with the faintest of praise!), 20th Century Blues finds various pop figures desperately trying to shoehorn themselves into ill-fitting songs, or vice-versa.

The Divine Comedy face the problem head-on, executing ungainly switches in "I've Been To A Marvellous Party" between fey spoken parts and techno- thrash choruses which do justice to neither tradition; the end result is so awful it could be Murray Lachlan Young. Others, most notably Paul McCartney on "A Room With A View", sensibly opt for more straightforward approaches, with period settings primly redolent of smoking-jackets and drawing-rooms. Sometimes, the two collide horribly: Space's appalling big-band treatment of "Mad Dogs And Englishmen" is ruinously poor, while Robbie Williams exudes a substantially different kind of louche nonchalance to that required by "There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner".

Only two artists come out of the project relatively unscathed: Bryan Ferry's simple "I'll See You Again" is neither camp nor sentimental, and all the better for it, while Suede's "Poor Little Rich Girl" is easily the most successful modernisation of Coward on the album, an imaginative reinterpretation which sounds completely of a piece with their oeuvre, and doesn't rely on nostalgic affection for effect.

BERT JANSCH

Toy Balloons

Cooking Vinyl COOK CD 138

The Scots guitar pioneer's 20th album, Toy Balloons, exhibits Jansch's usual grace and artistry, across a range of folk and blues material which stretches wide enough to include a JJ Cale-style R&B jogger in "Sweet Talking Lady", though the fulsome band backing on such tracks is less effective than his solo treatments.

The album opens with Jackson C. Frank's "Carnival", whose air of melancholy mystery is perfectly suited to Jansch's vocal style, and a lovely version of the trad-folk standard "She Moved Through The Fair", before focusing on Jansch's own songs. These are mainly earthy, good-natured blues like "Hey Doc" and "All I Got", or dry, delicate guitar reels like "Bett's Dance", but whichever style he works in, Jansch tries to bring out the particular character of the piece. The lilting "Toy Balloons", for instance, features turns of melody as breezy and bright as its subject, while the repetitive, hypnotic picking of "Waitin & Wonderin" expertly evokes the singer's anticipation of the train which will reunite him with his beloved. The work of a consummate craftsman.

MARILYN MANSON

Remix & Repent

Nothing/Interscope IND 95017

Marilyn Manson is/are living proof that death sells. Upholding the long and largely ignoble tradition of sensationalist geeks that have decorated the dirty underbelly of American rock - from Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper to Nine Inch Nails - MM rarely stray from the one true path of torture, mutilation and death, and only then to tweak the sensibilities of the pious with their atheism. The formula has proven itself to be highly profitable, with millions of albums having sold in America, and a best-selling autobiography of the band's eponymous lead singer proof of a considerable following.

This five-track EP features three live numbers - including a version of their shrill anthem "Antichrist Superstar" in which the baying audience plays its part enthusiastically in the call-and-response sections - and a couple of remixes, the best of which is Danny (Black Grape) Saber's re-working of "The Horrible People". Prefaced with a few seconds of jazz sample, Saber works the band's industrial buzzsaw guitar riff and Manson's horror-comic monster vocals into a good groove, something which the band themselves don't quite manage on "The Tourniquet Prosthetic Dance Mix", which belies its title by being just routine chunky Goth-rock. "You never ever believe in me," squeals Manson on the latter - but who of us believes in cartoons anyway?

ERIC MATTHEWS

The Lateness Of The Hour

Sub Pop SPCD 404

Eric Matthews's follow-up to the cult hit It's Heavy In Here is more a continuation than a development of that album's style. The opener "Ideas That Died That Day" is typical, with Matthews's ambition reflected in the grandiose symphonic-pop arrangement and lyrics such as "I'd like to be/full of unbelievable speech/saying truth that no one doubts it". With Matthews's airy vocals to the fore, the overall effect is strongly reminiscent of Sixties progressive-popsters The Zombies, though the song, like the rest of the album, lacks the engaging melodic immediacy of something such as "Time Of The Season". Never using a pop chord where a jazz one might be squeezed in, Matthews strives for the sophistication of a Bacharach, Wilson or Becker & Fagen - but these pieces are drably pedestrian by comparison, unremarkable songs in methodical settings. It sounds like the 90% perspiration that might be left if you were to take away the 10% inspiration from Brian Wilson's genius.

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