BRITNEY SPEARS: BLACKOUT **
GIVEN all the prurient hoo-ha surrounding the former Mouseketeer these days, this could never have been just another Britney album. Even if it sounds like just another Britney album. To wit, Britney is panting for you - yes, you - over a succession of up-to-the-minute electro backing tracks, such as the suggestive Break the Ice, on which she vamps it up as artificially as Janet Jackson.
Apparently, this is her - or her record company's - way of manifesting the album's central theme of "blocking out negativity and embracing life fully". Funny, because I thought the album's central idea was to create a shrewd/cynical self-referential running commentary outlining Britney's response to all the unwanted attention ("she's too big, she's too thin... oh my god, that Britney's shameless," she sarcastically self-mocks on Piece of Me) - with script considerately provided by her committee of songwriters.
From the opening pseudo-confrontational "it's Britney, bitch", Blackout is all a big staged faade - which would be fine if the album kept up the standard set by sultry electro single Gimme More rather than degenerate into the grating helium gasp of Toy Soldier. Spears is better when she's not trying too hard to be sexy and can just concentrate on being a pop star - Heaven and Earth is light, tuneful, inconsequential and unconcerned with perceived hipness, while traces of old-school soul are struggling to break through the production veneer of Why Should I Be Sad. Despite these glimpses of potential, Spears's latest game of "let's pretend" quickly gets wearing. Her career, if not her life, is still too stage-managed to allow her to mount a genuine musical confessional.
FOXFACE: THIS IS WHAT MAKES US ****
GARGLEBLAST RECORDS, 10.99
GLASGOW-BASED trio Foxface produced one of the highlights of the Ballads of the Book compilation, and their own album continues to fashion an idiosyncratic link between folk influences, pop melodies and more strident rock'n'roll elements. This Is What Makes Us is a dynamic debut full of contrasts, not least the polar textures of Michael Angus's baritone growl and Jenny Bell's sweet, breathy soprano. Along with drummer and fox-mask-wearer D John Ferguson, they expertly navigate a distinctive route between the clipped folkabilly of Monster Seas, the spectral country of Across To Texas, vulnerable folk-flecked ballads such as Winners/Losers and Dragstrip and the leash-straining blues punk of Face Looks Familiar to arrive at the rousing Scots/bluegrass/lo-fi indie crossover finale of What Do You Believe In? File close to fellow roots'n'roll adventurers Idlewild and Sons & Daughters, but in its own little compartment.
DURAN DURAN: RED CARPET MASSACRE ***
Whatever else Duran Duran are, they're certainly not predictable. Initially intended to consist of Killers-style guitar rock, their 12th album ended up as a collaboration with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake (who loved Ordinary World, their 1993 comeback single, as a child - how old will that make some fans feel?). This was a smart move, even if it resulted in Andy Taylor deserting the band (again); they sound re-energised. Where some later Duran albums tended to mix moments of pop brilliance with excruciatingly naff posturing (Liberty and Thank You spring to mind), Red Carpet Massacre is focused, flab-free and consistent. Some critics will sniff, the way they always sniff at Duran Duran, but for a group once derided as a decadent boy band to be not only still around but easily mistaken for a band 30 years younger is an enviable feat. The forever frothy Duran Duran were never likely to mature into a weighty rock band. This is the next best thing, and far more dignified than you might expect.
THE CAKE SALE: THE CAKE SALE ***
OXFAM IRELAND, 12.99
LIKE an Irish equivalent of Glasgow's Reindeer Section, the Cake Sale is a supergroup project with one band at its core (in this case Bell XI), but members of many more chipping in - in this case a whole host of fellow Irish musicians including Gemma Hayes, The Frames' Glen Hansard and Snow Patrol/Reindeer Section main man Gary Lightbody, plus Crowded House's Nick Seymour, the Cardigans' Nina Persson and others (there are 24 listed in all). It's for charity, so it's possibly uncharitable to say it's less than the sum of its formidable parts, but in the name of producing a consistent sound the Cake Sale have opted for mellow and mid-paced, and cooked up nine pleasant songs that soothe the senses but rarely thrill them. This is particularly conspicuous on album closer Aliens, where the Divine Comedy's usually perky Neil Hannon sounds half-asleep.
COLIN CURRIE: BORROWED TIME *****
SCOTS percussionist Colin Currie has long been a champion of Dave Maric's music. Both men met through their shared connections with the Steve Martland Band, and there are shared allusions, too, in Maric's jazz/rock-driven music which Currie performs with various artists in this stimulating disc. Who would ever have thought of combining percussion and church organ? Maric's Borrowed Time connects the two brilliantly, Clive Driskill-Smith - on the organ of Westminster Abbey - playing a moody understated backing to Currie's atmospheric solo line. There's no shortage of big hitters. Fellow percussionist Sam Walton joins Currie in the frenetic rhythms of Shapeshifter; trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger adds a sultry flourish to Lucid Intervals; while Maric himself plays piano in the driving minimalism of Predicaments. If you've seen Currie live in these works, the recordings are no less spectacular.
BACH: DAS WOHLTEMPERIERTE CLAVIER VOL1 ***
HARMONIA MUNDI, 22.99
HOW do you like your "Well-tempered Klavier"? These are, of course, the famous 48 preludes and fugues of Bach which take the keyboard player systematically through the complete chromatic sequence of keys - twice. And recording artists over the years have presented it to us in varying styles and forms, at its most eccentric in the curt idiosyncratic non-pedalled pianism of Glenn Gould.
In this new release of Book 1, Richard Egarr delivers Bach's seminal collection on the instrument we most expect these days, the harpsichord. There is nothing pretentious in his playing, just an obvious love for the music, and a flexible stylistic approach that avoids the clinical dogma of academic purism, delivering instead performances that mix well-articulated clarity with a pliant musicality. Sometimes the rubato might seem a shade overindulgent, as in the C minor Prelude, which gets bogged down in its own deliberations. But generally, Egarr reproduces the same well-tempered authority he does so regularly on the live stage. The catalogue can stand this worthwhile addition.
GUY BARKER: THE AMADEUS PROJECT ***
GLOBAL MIX, 13.99
BARKER has been long established as Britain's leading jazz trumpet player, but this two-CD release is also a showcase for his compositional talents, and contains two ambitious suite-length works, dZf and The Amadeus Project. Mozart provides a conceptual rather than a strictly musical link between the two discs. The first, dZf, is an oblique re-working of the story of The Magic Flute (dZf is a contraction of its German title, Die Zauberflte) written by Robert Ryan as a pastiche slice of hard-boiled detective fiction, complete with a narration by Michael Brandon that I suspect will quickly pall on repeated hearings. The Amadeus Project is inspired by a range of characters from Mozart's operas. In both cases, though, the idioms and improvisations are strictly jazz, and it is all impeccably played by the trumpeter and an excellent jazz big band that includes trumpeter Byron Wallen and Italian saxophonist Rosario Giuliani.
PATRICK STREET: ON THE FLY ***
LOFTUS MUSIC, 12.99
ACCORDIONIST Jackie Daly signs off from a long association with this fine Irish band with two typically exuberant contributions to the disc. His joyously rhythmic playing lights up two polkas from County Sligo (with additional harmonium from Brendan Hearty) and a set of reels from Donegal and Sligo. His replacement, fiddler John Carty, already sounds comfortably bedded into the band, and by and large it is business as usual in this selection of Irish tunes and songs. Andy Irvine's version of Erin Go Bragh uses a different tune to the familiar Dick Gaughan version, and Sergeant Small evokes his ongoing association with Australia, while Ged Foley takes on vocal duty on The Galway Shawl. The tune sets, featuring Kevin Burke's peerless fiddling, are crisp and expressive, but Patrick Street without Daly's vibrant accordion is going to take a bit of getting used to.
To order any of the CDs at the prices listed, call The Scotsman on 01634 832789. Prices include P&P. Allow 21 days for delivery.