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RED GUITARS (Buy CDs by this artist)
Slow to Fade (Self Drive) 1984
Tales of the Expected (Virgin) 1986
PLANET WILSON
In the Best of All Possible Worlds (Virgin) 1988
Not Drowning but Waving (Records of Achievement) 1989
ROBERT HOLMES
Age of Swing (Virgin) 1989

On their first major-label album, Hull's Red Guitars sound briefly like Cockney Rebel (from whom they borrow the refrain of "Sweetwater Ranch"), as well as Lloyd Cole, Bowie, Aztec Camera and Dream Academy. The quintet's light songs are pretty flimsy; guitarist Robert Holmes' vocals are likewise second-rate. While delicate and varied, arrangements and production alone can't make up for Tales of the Expected's inherent lack of raison d'être.

With two LPs behind them, the Red Guitars split. Holmes went solo, while bassist Lou Howard and guitarist/vocalist Hallam Lewis got themselves a drummer and formed the Planet Wilson. In the Best of All Possible Worlds is a strange record, a percussion-accented (but not dance-oriented) collection on which the three bandmembers occasionally seem to be playing different songs. With some of XTC's jagged rhythmic intricacy and a bit of the early Police's spare improvisation, the Planet Wilson's first LP imaginatively tests out an assortment of unfamiliar stylistic approaches, none of which really connects. Lewis' songs, lyrics and vocals are obviously all reaching for something, but it's impossible to discern just where he's heading. (The CD adds two tracks.)

Not Drowning but Waving (a phrase already in service as the name of an Australian band) doesn't shy away from discordant strangeness, but the indie-label album with a fancy die-cut sleeve is generally more focused and consistent-sounding than its predecessor. That's not to call it enjoyable: this is uncommon pop music with claws. Songs twist and turn and go all funny when they should be coalescing into accessible form; instruments shift from playing nice to spinning off the scale. The Planet Wilson is an exotic and intriguing place to visit, but I sure wouldn't live there.

Holmes' Age of Swing consists of handsome, unpretentiously sophisticated modern pop with solid melodic appeal. While lacking any distinctive artistic personality, the savvy songs (the title track is especially fine) are timelessly mainstream without being overly bland. Holmes (who also co-produced) has blossomed into a strong, plain singer with an unnerving current of Neil Diamond drama (check "American Lullaby"). The CD adds a pair of dull tracks co-produced by Ian Priestman, the album's main guitarist.

[Ira Robbins]