[The Mail On Sunday, 2005]
THERE ARE CERTAIN words and phrases guaranteed to make any music enthusiast's heart sink like a torpedoed fishing scull. “Westlife”. “Rock opera”. “Whimsical”. “Halliwell”. But few exert an effect quite so dismal as “solo project”. When a component of a celebrated combo takes time out to air his ungratified artistic impulses, it would be a foolish man who bets against an ensuing work of torpid, excruciating, pig-awful conceit.
Roxy Music, as in so many ways, are different. The verve and imagination that light up one of the most lustrous catalogues in pop have tended to carry over, diminished but unextinguished, into albums by individual members (and that's before you consider the discreet force that is Brian Eno.)
Phil Manzanera's 50 Minutes Later (Hannibal ***) - recorded by a line up which includes Eno and amounts to a Bryan Ferry-less Roxy, supplemented by Robert Wyatt among others - is an unusually adventurous and pleasurable exercise in pastiche. The first thing you notice is how strongly it impersonates early Roxy, which of course it has every right to. Moreover, the album is themed as a tribute to the milieu that spawned the band - the late Sixties London art-rock scene.
Again, given the preening smugness which characterises many of that era's veterans, the results could have been dreadful. But Manzanera adroitly swerves self-congratulation to deliver a barnstorming brace of opening numbers. Revolution is driven, delicious psych-pop. Technicolour UFO knowingly evokes Virginia Plain - a song it cannot hope to equal - with the winking good humour that David Bowie once applied to similar self-mimicry on Blue Jean.
Thereafter the album settles down into a leisurely, expansive mood, serving both as a showcase for Manzanera's atmospheric guitar playing, and as a musical travelogue which eventually roams off into parts not exactly unknown, but certainly seldom explored. If there were any doubts as to Manzanera's role in creating the matchless art-pop of Roxy Music, they'd be put to rest by this album. But it's more than a comprehensive set of footnotes; it's a satisfying addition in itself, a potted history of Roxy roots that you don't have to be potted to enjoy.
The Meadowlands (Lo-Max **) by New Jersey quartet The Wrens has revisited my CD tray several times now, as I try to puzzle out why I don't like it more than I do. This album could be an American indie rock primer. It's got the tunes, the harmonies, the spiky guitars, the energy, the “correct” influences. So I find myself doing something I'm usually loath to - recommending it to anyone who likes the sound of that, while admitting that it leaves me cold.
Derby-based producer Baby J's debut album F.T.P. (All City **) marks some kind of progress on the British urban scene. It's not a particularly original or daring record: it often calls to mind the amenable pop-rap of such 80s chart regulars as Heavy D & The Boyz. But it boasts two attributes British rap was long bereft of: slickness and self-confidence. Anyone willing to knock up an entirely new and not half bad ditty around Martha & The Vandellas' Heat Wave plainly doesn't lack for bottle - or gall. It also features guest appearances from many of the scene's bigger names (Skinnyman, Blade et al).
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