BLACK BOX RECORDER England Made Me (Chrysalis)

"England Made Me" is the debut album from the new project of former Auteur/Baader Meinhof member Luke Haines, one-time Jesus And Mary Chain drummer John Moore and the previously unknown vocalist Sarah Nixey. This matters to me because The Auteurs were one of England’s great lost groups: it’s hard to imagine now that barely five years ago the inkies were arguing over whether it would be Suede or The Auteurs who were destined for the big time. You’re probably familiar with Suede’s career trajectory; The Auteurs, meanwhile, fashioned three terrific albums of sneering garage glam racketry, the second subsequently bent gloriously out of shape by remixer m -Ziq, the last impeccably brutalised by the production hand of Steve Albini. Then there was Baader Meinhof’s eponymous work, a barely listenable concept album about international terrorism, and nothing more was heard from Haines for the best part of two years.

What made The Auteurs a great band was their habit of bolting bitter, twisted lyrics onto some of the most beatiful, twinkling melodies this side of an early Saint Etienne album. The Smiths did it almost as well, but happily Black Box Recorded make an even better fist of it. The key difference must be the presence of Ms Nixey: for the first time ever you don’t have to break through Luke Haines’ sarcastic snarl to get to the ugliness beneath, and her choirgirl-perfect delivery renders lines such as "Life is unfair/Kill yourself or get over it" (chorus of the recent non-hit single "Child Psychology") far more shocking than Haines could ever have achieved. Titles like "Girl Singing In The Wreckage", "Kidnapping An Heiress" and "Hated Sunday" (the latter a rather too blatant Morrissey imitation, admittedly, but no less irresistible than the rest of the album) probably tell you more about the tenor of "England Made Me" than I could, but throughout the breeding is impeccable - it’d make terrific dinner party background music, at least until your guests began to notice the lyrics. And respect too for "Swinging", which for no discernable reason mentions my old school town of Monmouth.

I haven’t yet mentioned the blank and bleary monotone cover of Althea And Donna’s "Up Town Top Ranking", of all things, or the Perrier-clear production, or even the fact that, despite being under forty minutes long EMI have pressed "England Made Me" on four (sturdy) 45rpm sides for maximum sound quality. Never mind: just celebrate Black Box Recorder as the triumphant return of one of the country’s greatest and nastiest believed-to-be-missing-in-action songwriters, and if your musical tastes have been known to veer towards the bizarre or perverse queue here.

BLACK BOX RECORDER The Facts Of Life (Nude)

Whether as frontman in The Auteurs or as a shadowy backroom presence in Black Box Recorder Luke Haines has spent the past seven years examining and exposing the diseased and decaying elements of British society, with an acuity that is equal parts Ray Davies and Matt Johnson. Having finally achieved chart success with the title track of the second Black Box Recorder album, it seems Haines is poised at his most subversive position of power yet.

Black Box Recorder play twinkling, swooning electropop, a little like Saint Etienne with all the kitsch 70s tomfoolery surgically removed and some killer tunes crammed into the gap. Over this Sarah Nixey croons about pornography, puberty, suburban ennui, motorways, murder and other topics that stray some distance from the traditional template of the popular song. The result, and in fact the whole Black Box Recorder package, is brilliant. It might be the same sweet music/sour lyrics trick that The Smiths used to play so successfully, but the impact is exaggerated tenfold by the austere Europop perfection of the band's music, Nixey's ice maiden delivery and the slashing savagery of Haines' dank bedroom obsessive lyrics. The booklet is a marvel in itself, with pithy photographs accompanying lines snatched from the songs.

Whether "The Facts Of Life" is a better album than Black Box Recorder's fine debut "England Made Me" is almost irrelevant. It takes its predecessor's winning formula and builds massively upon it - consider the similar transitions made between "Fleetwood Mac" and "Rumours", "A New Word Record" and "Out Of The Blue" or "Talking Book" and "Innervisions", for example - and as such it takes their game into a whole new arena. Watch astonished as Black Box Recorder's scabrous message effortlessly infiltrates daytime radio playlists and snuggles up next to identikit boy bands and prefab starlets: Luke Haines has finally made a pop record, and now blood must be spilt.

BLACK BOX RECORDER The Worst Of Black Box Recorder (Jetset)

"The Worst Of Black Box Recorder" is a useful, if brief and uneven, mop-up operation that compiles the b-sides and videos spawned during their brief two-album (thus far) career, brought to you by the same people responsible for Mogwai's conceptually similar "Ten Rapid" collection. And whilst it can't hope to compete with the consistency of their albums proper there are enough moments of excellence here to attract the Luke Haines completist in you.

Their big single "The Facts Of Life" receives a remix treatment at the hands of The Chocolate Layers, a.k.a. Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey of kindred spirits Pulp, which stretches out and opens up the original with the aid of infant dialogue that seems to date from a time before decimalization and extracts of what sounds like a sexual self-improvement album. Their cover of Althea And Donna's "Uptown Top Ranking" gets remixed by the band, rendering it just as fine as the original version found on the "England Made Me" album. And there's a few fine new examples of their chilly, caustic social observation and consumer culture baiting for those who can't get enough of the genre, in the form of "Start As You Mean To Go On" ("Top Shop, doves and Glastonbury/Learn to be a secretary") and "Brutality". In fact the only occasions when "The Worst Of Black Box Recorder" comes close to emulating its title are on blank-eyed, bloodless covers of Jacques Brel's "Seasons In The Sun" and Bowie's "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide", the latter of which, at least, deserves better. Not for everybody, then, but if you know what you're letting yourself in for you're unlikely to be disappointed.


Baader Meinhof

Luke Haines