Popped in again

CD OF THE WEEK

WET WET WET: TIMELESS **

DRY RECORDS, 12.99

ACCORDING to the results of a recent poll on the website www.jocknroll.co.uk Wet Wet Wet are responsible for making the second worst Scottish album of all time. Only Texas's White On Blonde was deemed more heinous than the Wets' debut, Popped In, Souled Out, which may deserve to be labelled the second worst Scottish album title of all time but at the same time is surely one of their better works, guilty only of being crammed full of bright 1980s pop hits.

Clearly, Wet Wet Wet have many prejudices to surmount. It's probably too late in the day to turn anyone on to a sound which is about as fashionable as dysentery, but, for what it's worth, they've just about made a believer out of me with their first new album in ten years, which sounds to these ears like the work of a band comfortable with their legacy, carefree about their comeback and confident about their future.

It's a promising turnaround for a group who only re-formed a few years ago. Past travails are written all over frontman Marti Pellow's now weathered face, but he appears to have rallied from the drug problems which contributed to the band's initial split, and escaped the whole "tragic Marti" tabloid circus. There were glimpses of a musical maturing in his variable solo career, although his greatest success in recent years has been playing the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago in the West End and then on Broadway.

With Pellow's need to be the all-singing, all-dancing, all-grinning entertainer satiated, his foray into musical theatre has left him in more dexterous voice than ever. Meanwhile, the band as a whole are just as brazen in their appropriation of their favourite soul and funk records, but their nods to standard-bearers such as Marvin Gaye and The Beatles are now delivered with a much lighter, more effervescent touch.

The current single Too Many People is the closest they get to the early Wets' smooth soul funk sound, with traces of Brass Construction, Randy Crawford and The Isley Brothers swimming around, although the social comment lyrics are more Another Day In Paradise than Harvest For The World. Its airy, effortless chorus is only the tip of a melodic iceberg.

Opener Run is a supremely confident, skyscraping soul-pop production with a big, open vocal from an invigorated Pellow, while Weightless takes its lead from Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, with a dreamy Christine McVie-style chorus and a Lindsay Buckingham-esque guitar break.

Real Life, a sloppy ballad of the Goodnight Girl school, is quintessential Wets, but the little flourishes of Spanish guitar and the sighing backing vocals are indicative of a new liberation. Timeless is unconcerned with where it fits into the current pop landscape and is all the better for it. Out of time rather than timeless, it sounds like it was written and recorded in a musical vacuum, where all that matters is the composition and delivery of great tunes, accompanied by exquisite arrangements.

Eyes Wide Open, for example, is a string-swept slice of old school romanticism, which sounds like the band missed their chance to write a James Bond love theme sometime around 1977. Thru' The Night also mines old-fashioned sentimental ballad territory, while In Every Heart (A Fire Burns) takes things to a new plateau, approximating the style of a smooth old crooner such as Bing Crosby or Jim Reeves as produced by Phil Spector. When Pellow hits the final note, the ghost of Roy Orbison is looking on approvingly. Richard Hawley might even be a bit jealous.

It's the kind of toasty track you'd be happy to find in your Christmas stocking, but it is arguably surpassed for quality by the soaring I Believe, boasting one of Pellow's best performances on the album.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the set does not sustain this fluent renaissance, and Wet Wet Wet slide from the sublime to the ridiculous with the pompous, chest-beating Heaven and its horrible Lion King inflections. They also take their eye off the ball on the plodding penultimate offering New Age Sacrifice, while closing track What Do You Know is nothing more than a Beatles pastiche. Having been a good boy all the way through the album, Pellow finally succumbs to his cheesy instincts, and overcooks the ending.

However, he and the rest of the band have done enough by this stage to convince that Wet Wet Wet are poised advantageously to enjoy an elegant dotage. Timeless is an unabashed anachronism but, as the likes of Rush and Journey have already demonstrated this year, you don't have to chime with the times to deliver a convincing comeback.

POP

CELINE DION: TAKING CHANCES **

COLUMBIA, 12.99

RETURNING from her self-imposed recording exile in Las Vegas with her first album in four years, Celine Dion wastes no time in taking on the pretender divas who have sprung up in her absence, yodelling like Shakira on Eyes On Me and indulging in some robust caterwauling in the vein of Pink and Kelly Clarkson on the title track, written by Dave Stewart (who cheekily references Eurythmics' Here Comes the Rain Again in the lyrics). She doesn't have the soft rock chops to pull off her cover of Heart's Alone, but enters into the gutsy rhythm'n'blues feel of That's Just the Woman in Me. Elsewhere, Dion sticks to her power-ballad comfort zone, warbling away in the upper echelons of her range and riding those key changes with that air of barely suppressed dementia which she and Mariah Carey have made all their own.

EXAMPLE: WHAT WE MADE **

THE BEATS, 10.99

IS MIKE Skinner collecting acts in his own image for his label? Example, aka 25-year-old Londoner Elliot Gleave, is another kitchen-sink rapper with an eye for trivial detail. Unlike Skinner's darker, more emotional work in The Streets, Example keeps things predominantly light-hearted and, at times, depressingly laddish on his debut album, with tracks about pulling women and other meaty subjects such as disastrous one-night stands, shopping with your girlfriend and people talking all the way through films. He should shape up on the subject matter but he does make seamless use of some old soul and rhythm'n'blues samples.

THE KILLERS: SAWDUST **

VERTIGO, 12.99

THE APPEAL of The Killers' blaring synth rock remains elusive on this odds-and-sods compilation of B-sides, covers and also-rans, which leads off with new single Tranquilize, a mannered collaboration with Lou Reed devoid of melody or meaning. Sawdust also features shameless pastiches of David Bowie and U2 on Where the White Boys Dance and Move Away, an emasculated cover of Joy Division's Shadowplay and a general tendency to shout loudly in the hope that no-one will notice the lack of tune in their material. But, stripped of their usual bombastic production, the sensitive covers of Kenny Rogers's Ruby and Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet sound like the work of a different band.

CLASSICAL

YEVGENY SUDBIN PLAYS SCRIABIN *****

BIS, 9.99

THE world of Scriabin is a mysterious, highly charged and enigmatic one. As a man, he has never properly been understood. His music has a hint of madness - perhaps a reflection of the Russian's own obsessive psyche. But it is also mesmerising, touching nerves and heart-strings with a power that is overwhelming in the right hands. The young Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin would appear to have the knack. From the very opening of this fascinating disc, he displays complete command of a series of works that range from three of Scriabin's all-consuming sonatas to such midget gems as the Op59 Pome or the Chopinesque Mazurkas, of which he includes four. For the composer's darker side, head straight for the Sonata No9, subtitled Messe Noire, or "living hell" as Sudbin describes it in his lengthy sleeve notes. Here is the truly beguiling Scriabin - elusive, troubled, and quite unique. Compelling.

SCHUBERT: SONATAS FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO ****

HARMONIA MUNDI, 13.99

PERFORMING Schubert's sonatas for violin and piano with a fortepiano as accompaniment redresses many issues of balance, both tonally and expressively. You may lose the richer, weightier tone of the modern grand, but conversely the violin sings with greater and more effortless ease. This new recording by such masters of their art as violinist Andrew Manze and fortepianist Richard Egarr glows with integrity. Its elegance and intimacy captures both the tenderness and the delicate agility of Schubert's four sonatas. The D major sonata, easily the best known, is expressed with unforced playfulness and a clarity that captures the spirit of the composer's salon style. Not that this duo shy away from the temptations of the music's slithering chromatic jokes, or the opportunities Schubert presents for some level of indulgence. The echoing acoustics of the recording venue - a Haarlem church in the Netherlands - occasionally become irritating, but never so much as to mar the superb musicianship of these captivating performances.

JAZZ

GWILYM SIMCOCK: PERCEPTION ****

BASHO RECORDS, 12.99

THE pianist Gwilym Simcock has established a reputation as one of the brightest talents to have emerged on the UK jazz scene in recent times, but resisted the temptation to rush into making his recording debut. His decision to wait has been vindicated in the assurance and maturity evident in the music on offer here. Simcock's flowing pianism and fertile musical imagination are constantly to the fore in a selection of his own impressive compositions, rounded out by interpretations of two standards, The Way You Look Tonight and a version of My One and Only Love (recorded live a couple of weeks after the studio sessions were completed in June). He uses his regular collaborators, bassist Phil Donkin and drummer Martin France, with the great Stan Sulzmann on saxophones on five selections, and guitarist John Parricelli on four of those. Percussionist Ben Bryant also features alongside France on half the album. A highly accomplished debut.

FOLK

FIONA MACKENZIE: DUAN NOLLAIG (A GAELIC CHRISTMAS) ***

GREENTRAX, 15.99

A CHRISTMAS album with a difference, and certainly an alternative to the ubiquitous Slade. This CD is the first ever recorded collection of Christmas carols and songs in Gaelic, compiled and performed by Fiona MacKenzie, the Highland Council's Miri Mhr Gaelic Song Fellow. She is joined by a range of guests that includes singers Maggie MacDonald, Katie MacKenzie and James Graham, as well as Capercaillie's Karen Matheson on a couple of songs, and instrumentalists of a similar calibre. The first disc features a range of songs on the Christmas theme, from familiar staples such as Silent Night and In the Bleak Midwinter in unfamiliar language to new carols. The second is more of a party disc aimed at younger listeners. In an attempt to give the music as broad an appeal as possible, MacKenzie has cast her net widely, drawing on classical and Celtic rock influenced settings as well as more traditional folk treatments.

To order any of these CDs at the special prices listed, call The Scotsman music line on 01634 832789. Prices quoted include P&P. Allow 21 days for delivery.