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Ben Harper

Fight Four Your Mind

Virgin America CDVUS 93

is one of several young contemporary American artists currently trying to salvage the blues from its torpor of former glories and bar-band boogie-boys. Eschewing the easy victories of electricity and volume, he plays an antique Weissenhorn, an unusual, hollow-necked acoustic lap-steel guitar with a resonance all its own, and relies mainly on the spare backing of bassist Juan Nelson and drummer Oliver Charles to fill out the sound.

Harper's songs deal less with the blues staple of woman troubles than with political oppression and moral laxity, to which he brings a committed Christian outlook. Simple statements of love, faith and herbal efficacy are rendered in the plain-speaking manner of Bob Marley, though Harper's voice - if not his religion - is somewhat closer to Cat Stevens's on tracks like "Oppression" and "Give a Man a Home."

His best songs, such as the repetitive "Excuse Me Mr", have the nagging simplicity and directness of mantras. Homilies abound: "As long as someone else controls your history, the truth shall remain a mystery," he admonishes in "People Lead," while the title-track, a call to self-determination, advises: "If you're gonna finish, you got to begin." But throughout, the gentleness of Harper's approach defuses the sternness of the scolding. There's barely a trace of a harangue, even when a starched-collar string arrangement portends the crippling seriousness of "Power of the Gospel."

The intimate production, meanwhile, adds its own layers of quiet mystery to the songs, never more so than on "God Fearing Man", where the oceanic reverberations of Harper's slide guitar mesh perfectly with the subtle drones of tamboura and sarod, two cultures resonating as one.

Keb' Mo'

Keb' Mo'

Okeh/ Epic EPC 478173

As Columbia's "race records" outlet in decades past, Okeh built up a fine catalogue of black music. The label was revived last year with, ironically, the white beatnik combo G Love & Special Sauce, which makes young bluesman Keb' Mo' the first black act on the new Okeh.

As such, he's eminently qualified, being something of a repository of classic blues styles. Like , he plays slide guitar in a variety of settings, from stark country-blues - as in his beautiful, gentle reading of Robert Johnson's "Kindhearted Woman Blues" - to the swampier boogie groove of "She Just Wants to Dance", though he's equally adept at Jimmy Reed-style lazy blues staggering ("Dirty Low Down and Bad"), raggy shuffles ("Angelina") and the kind of organ-fuelled deep soul blues we've come to expect from Robert Cray ("Don't Try to Explain").

Keb' would be just another blues stylist, however, were it not for his voice. Warm and friendly, it brings an easy glow of grace to material that might otherwise be too raw for Nineties tastes.

Despite their partisan Welshness, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci fit neatly into the vein of Anglo-Celtic whimsy that stretches from Canterbury to Edinburgh. There's a similar penchant for outre instruments, odd textural combinations and songs that switch direction abruptly between sections, and much the same affection for wearing comical headgear in fanciful imitation of medieval entertainers.

The constant presence of Megan Childs's violin brings echoes of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra to tracks like "Ymwelwyr A Gwrachod" ("Visitors and Witches"), while keyboardist Euros Childs and guitarist John Lawrence's endless overdubs lend a strange opacity to their delicate, winsome tunes. At times, as on "Paid Cheto Ar Pam," they teeter towards kitchen-sink inclusivity, loading up a slight idea with too much instrumental baggage; but generally, they're hard to dislike, though their translations allow listeners to see the nonsense behind the Welsh titles: in this case, "Don't cheat on Pam, because her voice is like a toy and every time I'm near her I feel like a sandwich." Faced with such logic, who could resist?

Following on from Umar Bin Hassan's Be Bop or Be Dead album of a year or two back, this Bill Laswell-produced album pairs the angry poet with his old colleague Abiodun Oyewole once again, with Grandmaster Melle Mel drafted in to provide a more modern perspective.

Oyewole is at his best performing solo with percussionist Aiyb Dieng, working up a hypnotic roll on tracks like the slavery account "Pelourinho." Hassan and Mel, by contrast, prefer working with the thick, fluid funk motor provided by Bill Laswell and various P-Funk cohorts. Whatever their chosen methods, however, there's a distinct sense of deja vu about their material, with tracks such as "Men-tality" and "Black Rage" featuring exactly the same kind of apocalyptic warnings as on the original Last Poets albums of 25 years ago.

Unfortunately, they're liable to be just as ineffectual, too: whatever one's sympathies, the lecture-theatre litany is ultimately just as tedious and off-putting as that once employed by Hiphoprisy's Michael Franti.

With Prayer 4 Unity, D-Influence supercede their own influences in fine style. There's still the occasional vestige of routine Brit-funk, like "Phuncky Times", but the ratio of quality material to filler is substantially greater than on, say, the New Power Generation album. Then again, the average duvet has less filler than the NPG LP.

Equally at home on intimate soul croons and brooding Curtis Mayfield- style funk, D-Influence stretch themselves further on the global groove of "Afrojam", incorporating a lithe bounce into the funk, then adding a splash of Latin sauce with popping timbales, before bringing the whole thing back to the blues with a harmonica finale. An effervescent work: the panache with which they bring it off shows their growing confidence.

That Guru chap must be some kind of inverse genius. To be able to take jazz, one of the most endlessly inventive musics in the world, and make it as mind-numbingly dull as this surely involves a special talent.

It's partly the fault of his rap style, which is crashingly monotonous even by the plummeting standards of the genre. Mainly, though, it's a matter of rap groove repetition, of taking one phrase from what was originally a complex succession of musical progressions and variations, and looping it over and over while his guests do their best to embellish it with a vocal or instrumental line of their own.

Invariably, interest wears off faster than if the original jazz cut were allowed to proceed unhindered. Those in search of more rewarding jazz/ rap crossovers would be better to investigate Branford Marsalis's Buckshot LeFonque project and the Ronny Jordan Meets DJ Krush collaboration.

ANDY GILL

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