This Week's Album Releases

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Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic Arista

Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic Arista

While undoubtedly an improvement on the tidal wave of leftovers that has constituted Prince's output over the past few years - it's his best release since Lovesexy, at least - there's still little here to bear out the press release's extravagant claims of the "constant artistic exploration" of this "visionary pioneer".

His Arista debut still relies heavily on the basic lite-funk sound established as far back as Dirty Mind - you know exactly what a track like "Hot Wit U" sounds like without hearing it - but it's applied with greater wit and imagination than for some while.

Songwriting too, by

(The Artist Formerly Known As Prince) is his strongest for years, with the melodramatic "Man O'War" offering the most satisfying application so far of his Stylistics-style falsetto soul, and "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold" furnishing his most bankable single in ages. Of course, he could have been stockpiling this stuff for years, as a bargaining chip for his new contract, but suggestions of a Prince renaissance might be encouraged by the credits: though arrangement, composition and performance are all attributed to , the production is credited to PRINCE, in big capital letters. Can a proper Prince album be on the horizon?

Mariah Carey Rainbow Columbia

According to her sleeve note, Rainbow chronicles Mariah's "emotional roller-coaster ride of the past year", by which you presume that she means the collapse of her relationship with Sony Records' boss Tommy Mottola, if lines such as "I gravitated towards a patriarch" are anything to go by.

Delighted though you may be for her new happiness, the results are not altogether for the better - Mottola, surely, would have questioned the adoption of her ghastly new "California coquette" image - though as regards the music, it's pretty much the same recipe as before: mainstream r'n'b grooves from such as Jermaine Dupri and Jam & Lewis, incongruent raps from the likes of Jay-Z, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Missy Elliott, a surfeit of glass-endangering high notes in the Minnie Riperton manner, and songs that struggle to make their shape felt beneath a welter of melismatic murmurings.

So overdone is the counterpoint billing and cooing behind tracks such as "Heartbreaker" and "Can't Take That Away" that it's difficult to follow the lead melody, though it could just be weak songwriting - after all, with no fewer than eight people credited for a song such as "Crybaby", you'd have thought that one of them might have come up with a decent tune.

Ian Brown Golden Greats Polydor

Rather than do everything himself, warts and all - as was mostly the case on last year's solo début Unfinished Monkey Business - Ian Brown employs a relatively settled group of session musicians on this follow-up, to help flesh out his ideas more constructively.

The difference is striking: though his basic approach remains essentially the same, Brown's baggy grooves seem more precisely articulated without the dubious benefit of strategies such as his "rhythm bass". Certainly, the former Fall drummer Simon Wolstencroft brings a greater solidity and assurance to the backbeats, while the keyboard tints of Dave McCracken provide more varied background coloration to Brown's songs. The result is the latter's best work since "Fool's Gold", a confident extension of the early Stone Roses' direction, before they were sidetracked into becoming a single-minded, axe-hero operation. Why, even Brown's notoriously erratic vocals stick fairly securely to the specifics of key and pitch here, a minor miracle in itself.

As you'd expect, several tracks reflect the singer's brush with the forces of law and order following his much-publicised in-flight contretemps with BA personnel. The trial itself features in the closing "Babasonicos" - with Brown chiding the magistrate, "You weren't there that night/ You didn't get it right", naïvely expressing surprise that "the lady got no soul" - while his subsequent spell in Strangeways informs songs such as "Free My Way" and "Set My Baby Free", as his street life affiliations are sharpened into a more personal appreciation of underclass liberation. His sump-estate philosopher's world view is most movingly expressed in the haunting "So Many Soldiers", where dark portents cloud his outlook with the knowledge that it's not only from foreign conflicts that "only so many soldiers come home".

Not that he's immune to more global plights - his appreciation of local conditions in "First World" is tempered by the "Hope that the light of the first world/ Won't darken the light of the third world". Elsewhere, there's a more positive aspect to songs such as the single "Love Like A Fountain", on which twittering synths extend the classic Roses dance-rock sound into techno territory, and "Neptune", a stoic appreciation of the power of imagination that finds Brown reflecting that "This grace can help you wander" - a consolation presumably inspired by being locked up for 23 hours of each day. It's often claimed that tribulation provides the greatest spur to artistic endeavour, and that's undoubtedly the case here, with Brown's sometimes fuzzy logic forced into sharper focus than before. He's the richer for the experience, and so are we.

Hil St Soul Soul Organic Dÿme

A duo comprising Zambian singer Hilary Mwelwa and producer Victor Redwood-Sawyer (formerly of UK rap act Blak Twang), Hil St Soul specialise in conscious soul with a street feel and touches of Chic and Earth Wind & Fire to the grooves.

With a healthy respect for the diversity of their musical heritage, they're the closest UK equivalent to American retro-soul outfits like The Family Stand and Toni Tony Tone, while the personal nature of Mwelwa's songs parallels the work of such as Lauryn Hill and Macy Gray.

Laying out their musical policy on the opening "Strictly A Vibe Thing", they establish a slick, uplifting mood which sustains despite Hilary's tendency to gripe about the music business in songs like "Just A Matter Of Time" and particularly "Concrete Jungle", which sports the ungainly opening couplet "It's so hard trying to earn a living in this musical sphere/ When style takes precedence over substance".

True enough, maybe, but nobody wants to hear someone fortunate enough to be making music complaining about their tribulations in so doing; in future, they should focus more on celebrating the joy of music, so fulsomely evident in tracks like "Nostalgia" and "Feel Good Factor".

Various Artists Bleecker Street Astor Place

This lovingly-packaged selection of homages toasts the heritage of New York's Greenwich Village, which in the early Sixties became the hub of the folk-music boom that brought the world the likes of Paul Simon, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Phil Ochs, John Sebastian and, of course, Bob Dylan.

Its 16 tracks each feature a classic song from the era done by an inheritor of the folk-rock mantle: John Cale and Suzanne Vega bring a suitable mix of sensitivity and sententiousness to Cohen's "So Long, Marianne", while the impassioned piety of Chrissie Hynde's version of Tim Buckley's "Morning Glory" correctly reflects the era's sentimental idealisation of the hobo lifestyle - a characteristic also evident in the banjo hootenanny of Loudon Wainwright and Iris DeMent's reading of Richard Farina's "Pack Up Your Sorrows".

The set texts of the period - "My Back Pages", "Everybody's Talkin'", "The Last Thing On My Mind", "Let's Get Together", "Darling Be Home Soon" - are all covered competently and perhaps a touch too respectfully; though few display the understated sensitivity which Ron Sexsmith brings to Tim Hardin's "Reason To Believe", a perfect match of performer and material.