Every few years, there's a shift in the geographic center of pop power: from Liverpool to San Francisco in the '60s; from L.A.'s soft- rock to New York's New Wave in the '70s. Right now all ears are back on Britain, where they grow pop stars with Personalities. Here's a handful of those brave new British sounds:
MEAT IS MURDER -- The Smiths (Sire 9
"25269-1). It seems everyone in Europe has lined up either for or against the Smiths and their fascinating frontman Morrissey. Now it's America's turn: "Meat Is Murder," their third collection, is a guitar lover's dream, thanks to Johnny Marr's imaginative layering of every known guitar style. "Meat" is a dark mix of sexual/political lyrics, nebulous melodies and Morrissey's eccentrically soulful voice -- melodramatic moans, keening wails and an unsettling tendency to break into falsetto or twisting vocal spirals. Two songs stand out: the haunting "How Soon Is Now?," which mates Morrissey's anguished lyric about loneliness with Marr's churning Bo Diddley beat; and "Barbarism Begins at Home," which pits a punchy Chic bassline against the Smiths' trademark wall of chiming, shimmering guitars. b AGE OF CONSENT -- Bronski Beat (MCA 5538). Okay, three groups don't make a trend, but it's a fact that with the Frankies, the Smiths and now the Bronskis, "gay pop" has owned the top of the U.K. charts for more than a year. This trio of plug-ugly skinheads creates a velvety curtain of electropop, with a message for those who care to listen closer. Jimi Somerville's creamy falsetto does rollercoaster swoops all over the high-energy dance hits, including the urgently angry "Why?" and the heartaching (but eminently danceable) "Small Town Boy."
RATTLESNAKES -- Lloyd Cole and the Commotions (Geffen GHS 24064). This guitar- based Scottish band has a leader who sings in a nervous monotone that recalls Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Television's Tom Verlaine. All the cuts are witty beyond the '60s surface sound, but the immediate earstopper is the odd and unforgettable "Perfect Skin."
BREWING UP WITH -- Billy Bragg (Go! Discs CD027). This angry young man with an electric guitar comes across as a sort of one- man Clash. Though his forte is the funny and forceful protest song, with brash vocals set against his unadorned metal clang, Bragg should win U.S. hearts with the wistful "St. Swithin's Day" and "A Lover Sings."
SISTERS -- The Bluebells (Sire 9 25129-1). The Bluebells are a quintet of young Scots discovered by Elvis Costello. The winning formula: more ringing guitars, glottal vocals and a subdued political stance. Standouts include the quietly bitter "The Patriot's Game" and the completely irresistible "Cath," which, with its barroom buoyance and clap-along, sing-along chorus, sounds like a sure hit Over Here.