& Mark Lanegan/
Belle and Sebastian/
[The Mail On Sunday, 2006]
SWAY IS THE 23-year-old London rapper who last year shot like a bottle rocket from the mixtape scene to national prominence. His first album, winkingly titled This Is My Demo (Dcypha ***), is an uncommonly slick and very entertaining record which cannily ticks a series of boxes. When he announces, for the benefit of foreign listeners, that “he's coming to you from the same place as the Spice Girls”, it's true in more than the geographical sense.
The public doesn't buy British MCs as bad boys, so Sway casts himself more as an observational comic. He's genuinely funny, and comes a cropper when he attempts anything else. As an indictment of domestic abuse, Pretty Ugly Husband is wince-inducing for all the wrong reasons; but on Flo Fashion, Download and Sick World (an endearingly blatant crib of Eminem's My Name Is), he's both charming and hilarious.
Listening to the Will Smith-isms of Month In The Summer, you'd guess that hip hop is merely Sway's leg-up to the wider entertainment world. If, a few years down the line, he winds up as yet another jabbering TV presenter, it'll be a waste of a bona fide lyrical talent.
Belle & Sebastian (precious, milquetoast Indie darlings) and Screaming Trees (intense, raw-boned backwoods rockers) can't have many fans in common. But their respective alumni, Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, don't make as incongruous a combination as you might guess. Ballad Of The Broken Seas (V2 **) self-consciously adopts the countrified Beauty/Beast template of Nancy and Lee, June and Johnny - with the twist that it's the female half at the controls.
Broken Seas gets the sound and the feel right, but suffers two distinct flaws. Firstly, Campbell's songwriting is proficient but unmemorable, as emphasised by a cover of Hank Williams' Ramblin Man which towers over its surroundings. Secondly, Campbell is no June or Nancy - her light voice cannot match Lanegan's treacly baritone rumble for personality. The overall effect is of weak, milky tea overpowered by a generous shot of dark rum.
Belle and Sebastian themselves are one of those much-loved bands on whom opinion is polarised. Some cherish them as the standard-bearers of indie's dainty craft. Others (myself included) instinctively embellish their fey, feeble tones with a fantasy of cartoon anvils squashing them into simpering goo.
Quite what it signifies that The Life Pursuit (Rough Trade **) is the first of their records I can actually bear the sound of, I'm not sure. The 60s pop and glam rock pastiches permit one to withstand each vignette long enough to get an idea of its story (outsiders; art schools; strange, pretty girls and shy, tongue-tied boys - in other words, the usual.) This may mean that Belle and Sebastian's fans will, in turn, hate it; but I doubt it, considering how much forbearance they've shown thus far.
Comebacks - how to. The windswept Nordic melancholy of a-ha's excellent early work has slowly been gaining the recognition it deserves - a process that can only be helped by Analogue (Polydor***), which makes up in drama and ambition what it lacks in killer tunes. There's no equivalent of Take On Me or I've Been Losing You, but it's a strong, substantial and remarkably consistent pop album, surging confidently through the best part of a pleasingly saturnine hour.
Speaking of Scandinavian mood music, Danish songstress Lise Westzynthius's languorous and pretty debut album, Rock, You Can Fly (One Little Indian ***), deserves a mention. Her breathy, atmospheric, effects treated balladeering manages (unlike almost everything else of its kind) not to be irksome or gimmicky.
Comebacks - how not to. Where a-ha make no obvious concessions to fashion, Heaven 17's Before After (Alpha Engineering* ) has that ignominious, Dad's-wedding-dance quality of a band scrabbling, and failing, to keep up. Gallic funk-house makes Hands Up To Heaven the worst offender: less Daft Punk than Stardust, and far more dated than the trio's own 80s hits.
Both in their own right and as label-boss patrons of fellow artists, Coldcut have operated at the core of British left-field electronica for two decades. They've embodied both its qualities (inventiveness, intelligence, daring) and its imperfections (indulgence, self-regard and a certain coffee table tendency) - all of them found on Sound Mirrors (Ninja Tune ****), which features some of their best tracks to date. The rousing True Skool, with Roots Manuva, invigorates well-worn Indian samples. Walk A Mile echoes and updates soulful, textured Deep House. Sound Mirrors goes a bit wallpapery towards the end, but by then it's already very much in credit.
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