New Releases: Rock and Pop

Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed The Fish?

(XL) 13.99 ****

IT WOULD be just like Damon Gough to screw up his own career. Anyone who has already witnessed the Badly Drawn Boy live "experience" will know that perversity (and Jack Daniels) reigns. "Who wants to hear a perfect reproduction of an album," argues Gough. "Who wants to see Grizzly Adams taking three hours to get through an album’s worth of material plus ‘hilarious’ drunken banter?" argue the long-suffering fans. Even Ryan Adams, not the pithiest of performers, manages to cram a heck of a lot of music into his wayward sets.

But, really, it is Gough’s lack of studied professionalism that endears him to so many. The danger would be if he ever forsook his capacity for quirkiness in favour of adult songwriting "values". Recently he came close to misplacing his muse (you know, that thing that helps him write straightforward melodic pop songs on guitar and piano and not end up sounding like David Gray) with his anodyne About A Boy soundtrack. It enhanced his bank balance but "didn’t pull my heartstrings", he says. Have You Fed The Fish? (AKA All Possibilities), the "proper" follow-up to his Mercury Music Prize-winning debut The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast, is the one to make his heartstrings zing. And he won’t be the only one.

Who knows where Gough’s going to take it when he gets up on stage. It is already an irreverent album, not in a two-fingers punk rebel fashion but in the impish way he plunders for sonic gold and the little humorous touches that pepper the route, like preceding You Were Right with brief acoustic companion piece I Was Wrong or the droll wit of opening sketch Coming Into Land.

Gough does not take the thieving quite as far as the schizophrenic Coral album - his song structures actually make sense. But his references come from far and wide, from the vaudeville of Tickets To What You Need to the silent film soundtrack touches leading into the title track, which then morphs into a tender epic about the little domestic things that dominate the daily life of a reluctant international pop star.

The bright-eyed All Possibilities continues the current fondness for peppy 1960s brass breaks, as also featured on Paul Weller’s recent It’s Written In The Stars single. Similarly fluent and upbeat is the current hit You Were Right - Radio Two DJ Ken Bruce’s favourite single of the year, if that’s any help. But you could hold up almost any track on this album, even the obvious "Beatley" wistfulness of Imaginary Lines, as a masterclass in pop songwriting with heart and soul. The Boy can’t help it - he practically drools great songs in his sleep.

U2: The Best Of 1990- 2000

Island 18.99

THE second instalment of U2’s greatest hits covers the period when they, of all the lumbering, armour-plated rock dinosaurs, chose the narrow way and actually challenged themselves creatively. The result was the epochal Achtung Baby, an album that so successfully altered their musical course that the band have struggled to release anything as audacious since.

But nestling quietly among the irreverent discofied rockers on this compilation are back-to-back bewitching modern classics, One and Miss Sarajevo. The album’s two new tracks, Electrical Storm and The Hands That Built America, the latter written for the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Gangs Of New York, take their lead from such epic dignity and are superior to anything on the disappointing return-to-navel-gazing All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Their charm will depend on whether or not you buy the Bono-as-mystic-healer routine. I buy it all - there is not another band of this stature who have remained on top without having to lean disproportionately on their distant back catalogue. -FS

Tom Jones: Mr Jones

V2 14.99 *

OH DEAR. If Tom Jones’s duets album Reload was a smart, successful attempt to woo a younger, hipper audience, Mr Jones - a collaboration with the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean - is a rather sad and pathetic one. What either man thought he was doing is a mystery, but a burly, pension-age Welshman going "uh huh, uh huh", Lauryn Hill-style between every line, or attempting bizarre, hip-hop lite lines like "This is for my people workin’, ogee ogee ogee oh," is just embarrassing. Remember Duran Duran’s infamous cover of Public Enemy’s 911 Is A Joke? This is much, much worse. -AE

Blue: One Love

Innocent 13.99 **

THE problem with second albums from boy bands is getting that far in the first place, rather than ending up in the trash with last year’s Hear’Say calendar. So far, Blue have been an unqualified success story, with a smattering of decent singles and a couple of good-looking band members to their name. Of the two categories of boy band - those who go down the heinous ballads and crude covers versions route, and those who at least attempt to party - Blue happily fall into the latter.

But One Love still isn’t much cop. The title track, with its shout out to a loaf of bread ("one love for the Mother’s Pride"), is an agreeable slice (hah!) of poppy R&B, while the swaggering Riders is a lairy rallying cry the likes of which Westlife wouldn’t have the balls to pull off. But if sultry Simon, dreamy Duncan and the other two have songs like this at their disposal, what’s the excuse for the rest of the naff selections? -FS

Mercury Tilt Switch: Brundle Kid

Pet Piranha 10.99 ***

AS WORD association goes, Mercury Tilt Switch is a name with the right connotations for a rock band, conveying a sense of dynamics, electricity, momentum, all of which this Dundonian quintet possess in some measure. On their debut album, they rampage hell for leather through nine tracks and pause for breath on token ballad Edge Of The Swimming Pool. It could be a thrill ride if it wasn’t so over-familiar. Brundle Kid is the sound of ten years ago, recalling all those Husker Du-influenced bands of the early 1990s. But with the Vines attracting comparisons with Nirvana and singer Craig Nicholls name-checking crusty grungers Swervedriver, perhaps Mercury Tilt Switch are the right nostalgia at the right time. -FS

Smog: Accumulation: None

Domino 13.99 ***

IF IT’S Friday, it must be time for another album from the immensely prolific Bill Callahan. Except the new Smog album isn’t new. Accumulation: None is described as "your Smog singles compilation companion", which means some 7in releases plus radio session work and the mandatory previously unreleased rarities.

Pull up a stool and feast on the dry humour of Smog "hit" A Hit (sample lyric: "it’s not gonna be a hit/so why even bother with it"), the actual radio hit Cold Blooded Old Times, the broody melancholy Came Blue and Little Girl Shoes, and the epic (in a lo-fi style) crescendo of I Break Horses, and feel truly welcome in Callahan’s world of rickety alt.folk. -FS

Ron Sexsmith: Cobblestone Runway

Nettwerk America 13.99 ****

BABY-FACED Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith has "The Touch", that indefinable something that makes his trad-melodic little songs, strummed simply on a guitar, better than other songwriters’ trad songs strummed simply on guitars.

Much of Cobblestone Runway is as effortlessly moving as his countryman Neil Young at his most intimate. Although their voices are quite distinct both communicate a vulnerability through their vocals. There’s also a trace of soul on These Days and The Less I Know and even a surprising light funky arrangement on Dragonfly On Basin Street. -FS