This week's album releases

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The Independent Culture

GRANDADDY | The Sophtware Slump (V2)

On their beguiling début, Under the Western Freeway, Grandaddy's songwriter Jason Lytle's songs focused on the aimlessness of modern American life, the simple pleasures of drinking beer and playing guitar and driving around. As he hails from the semi-backwater of Modesto, California, it's tempting to imagine that's all there was to write about, but the way Lytle illuminated his subjects made them appear the most magical, fulfilling activities on earth. With The Sophtware Slump, he's trained his eye on a broader cultural palette, tackling ecological and techno-fear issues with a distinctly whimsical manner. According to the press release, he foresees "the extinction of a certain sort of human, in a world less requiring of modesty, reservation, imagination and human integration". It adds: "Devo has covered a lot of this, but in the year 2000 it doesn't seem so funny."

The overarching theme is one of technological entropy, a concern initially inspired by the giddy rate of obsolescence accepted in the computer business. At its most direct, a song such as "The Crystal Lake" regrets the abandonment of rustic charms for more ephemeral attractions, while "Broken Household Appliance National Forest" (snappy title!) offers sardonic appreciation of the cast-off society by depicting a park in which microwaves and air-conditioners decorate the landscape, "mud and metal mixing good".

Elsewhere a more surreal sci-fi approach colours songs such as "Jed the Humanoid" - a touching lament for an outdated android who, starved of attention, turns to drink - and the majestic opening track, "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot", in which Lytle's frail, Neil Young-ish voice traverses "Space Oddity" territory in tribute to a "2000 man" who may be a machine, but may just be terribly alienated. In both cases, the spirit of the sci-fi author Philip K Dick looms large, glimpsed through the ghostly mist of string synth and artificial chorale that casts a shroud over much of the album.

It's territory that has been well covered before by others, but there's a refreshing lack of cynicism or told-you-so smugness to Lytle's approach. Instead, there's a poignant glow of apprehension or regret, akin to the mood of Don DeLillo's Underworld. Modesto may be miles from anywhere worth being, but in Jason Lytle it has produced one of rock's more cogent commentators on the worth of being.

THE BLUETONES | Science & Nature Superior Quality (Mercury)

The Bluetones' guitarist, Adam Devlin, has explained the title of the band's third album as reflecting its blend of "organic" instrumentation (Nature) and more contemporary beats and arrangements (Science). To be honest, that's stretching a point - this is hardly Screamadelica, just a plain, but pleasant enough, indie-pop collection which takes only the most tentative steps outside its home territory. The single "Autophilia Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My Car" is typical: a title that doth protest too much, a lyric that's far too pleased with its manipulationof automotive terminology, and most crucially, a dull and plodding riff that fails to reflect the speed and freedom which are the essence of the car song. The result: gridlock. Much of the time, the swirling organ and choppy guitar recall the more dutiful moments of Ocean Colour Scene's career, and such "experimental" strategies as they employ are too timidly undertaken: the pedal steel guitar-laced "One Speed Gearbox" lacks the mystery of modern alt.country; the Everly Brothers tang to the harmonies of "Tiger Lily" is frittered on too dilute a melody; and sadly, the mariachi trumpet and guitar of "Zorro" add up to rather less than "Alone Again Or".

ME ONE | As Far As I'm Concerned (Island)

There's a refreshing openness to this début album from 28-year-old British rapper Eric Martin, aka Me One, that stands like a beacon of spiritual generosity against the dark night of hip-hop's gangsta soul. It's there, in general, in lines such as: "If I'm Me One then you me too," and, "Positive say negative had its day," and it's applied to more particular situations in songs such as "Old Fashioned" - bemused dissing of a love rival's Neanderthal attitude - and "Chapters", in which a solicitous Me One advises: "Three bad niggas equals three had niggas/ Now what I gotta do to keep ya fingers off triggers?" Duets with The Roots and Guru from GangStarr cement Me One's position on the liberal side of the great rap divide, while his casual, jazzy style, bouncing the words along like a basketball, suggests his patience and equanimity, rare qualities in hip-hop. There's an elegance to the productions, whose blend of light, funky rhythm guitar and spare, minimal percussion brings to mind the tightly sprung work of D'Angelo. If it were not for a cover of the Beach Boys' "In My Room", unnecessarily saddled with a jerky, incongruent breakbeat, As Far As I'm Concerned would be damn near perfect; as it is, it sets new standards of excellence in British hip-hop.

TOPLOADER | TOnka's Big Moka(Sony Soho Square)

The sleeve to this début album, featuring Eastbourne's Toploader strolling away into Hyde Park, carries echoes of Oasis's better days, but the pompous chord progression and empty melodrama of their current hit "Achilles Heel" is about as close to Phil Collins as modern Britpop gets. It's one of several pieces in which sky imagery - stuff about flying high, floating away, and being in a higher state - offers metaphors for freedom, but the music itself is much too tightly reined to soar as it ought. Singer-songwriter Joseph Washbourn's words are something of a problem throughout Onka's Big Moka, with "Do You Know What Your Future Will Be?" dressing up the dullest of maxims as questing soul-searching, and "Breathe" controversially advising: "You gotta breathe in and out." Worst of all is the earlier single "Let The People Know", which opens a vein of anthemic vapidity more suited to Jamiroquai's lead singer, Jay Kay - for whom, ironically, Washbourn's hip transatlantic drawl (more Deep South than south coast) is a dead ringer. And while there's no denying he has a firmer grasp of melody in his little finger than entire fistfuls of Bluetones, his efforts are firmly put in perspective by the effortless superiority of the band's cover of Thin Lizzy's "Dancing in the Moonlight".

AMON TOBIN | Supermodified (Ninja Tunes)

Amon Tobin's Permutation from 1998 was one of the more successful exercises in jazz-junglism, mixing bebop breakbeats and avant-garde sax scribbles with moody atmospheres to create an idiosyncratic mode of sinister hyperactivity. He has not stood still for Supermodified, which disguises familiar forms under a welter of effects before burying them under a barrage of drums. It finds him transcending the limitations of drum'n'bass for something closer to the big-beat bravado of the Chemical Brothers, though as yet he lacks their grasp of commercial imperatives. The main hangover from his jungle period is probably the speeded-up chatter of mouth percussion in "Precursor"; elsewhere, he favours raucous drum and splashy cymbal - most effectively on the opener, "Get Your Snack On", where they power what sounds like a treated loop of the "Mystery Train" riff. His strength lies in his range of reference, combining a RZA-style loop with elegant clarinet phrases for the Gallic noir of "Slowly", and letting sinister horns stalk Debussy's afternoon faun through an industrial landscape in "Marine Machines". He may push the envelope to the point of shapelessness at times, but then, how else is he going to discover the shape of the new?

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