Eels, M.I.A., Hal
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[The Mail On Sunday, 2005]

JUST AS CERTAIN films seem targeted primarily at Oscar voters, so there are albums (almost always the work of male American rock songwriters) which in their self-conscious attempts at gravitas and profundity are all but bids for admission to the canon. You might at first suspect this of Blinking Lights And Other Revelations (Vagrant)****, a double set from Mark “E” Everett, aka Eels. But if it constitutes such a bid, then it deserves serious consideration. Drifting across ninety surprisingly swift moving minutes of reflections on experience and mortality, all life is here. The spleen and sidewinding menace of previous Eels records has given way to leisurely contemplation; while E's few remaining sonic gimmicks serve to accentuate rather than propel the often excellent songs.
 Bleeding-edgesters across London have been working themselves into a froth over the guerilla chic of M.I.A., whose personal mythos proclaims her the British-raised refugee offspring of a Tamil Tiger. This would be just dandy, but for one small drawback. She's not very good. Arula (XL)* consists mostly of ungainly ragga chanting over faintly World-ified electro beats. Those with a longish memories may find themselves recalling a similar chancer, MC Kinky.
 Image-wise M.I.A. is more in hock to another art-school-tries-street style package of exotica, Neneh Cherry. Cherry made a few cracking records, though. No such joy, as yet, from M.I.A. In its own way, Arula is as derivatively retro as, say, Elevator (Reprise)**, the brisk new album from Canadian standard-issue grease rockers Hot Hot Heat. But that at least boasts a couple of pleasingly raucous foot-stompers, and gives itself no unmerited airs.
 Also from the past, but with less of an overt blast, comes Hal (Rough Trade)***, a self-titled debut of a very deliberate quaintness rooted in the pre-punk 70s. Wholly romantic, partly pastoral, and ever so gently rockin', it's a vision of pop music out of a Jackie annual by Magpie, down to the haircuts. As with their spiritual compadres The Magic Numbers, Hal stand or fall on the sweetness of their songs, several of which possess enough genuine charm to override their conspicuous efforts to be charming.

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