This week's album releases

PAUL WELLER | Heliocentric (Island)

The title of Paul Weller's fifth solo studio album refers to the Copernican theory of astronomical relations, in which the planetary bodies were finally realised to revolve around the sun, as opposed to previous Earth-centred notions.

It's quite appropriate for Heliocentric, which has a lightness and radiance entirely at odds with the surly portents and leaden riffs of 1997's Heavy Soul, about as earthbound and mired an album as any in the Weller canon.

In the past, the absence of American influences in his music has rather stymied Weller's attempts at freeing his heavy soul, but although he's still drawing on predominantly late-Sixties ideas here, he's let the sun shine in a little to reflect the more bucolic strain of British hippydom. In particular, the orchestrations of Robert Kirby, who did the string arrangements on Nick Drake's records, have imparted a richness of texture and an acquiescent tone that sits well with Weller's ruralist imagery.

For all that, it's probably his most diverse set yet, the results ranging from the Forever Changes vibe of "With Time And Temperance" to the McCartney-esque piano blues of "Frightened", on which Kirby's strings apply a George Martin-style lustre to Weller's admission that although he's "Waiting to fly up on eagles' wings/But truth be told - I'm not that bold - at all".

The opening track "He's The Keeper" is a sincere, if slightly stodgy, tribute to the late Ronnie Lane, although the folk-rock frolic of "Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea" and the singalong "A Whale's Tale" are perhaps closer to the classic early Faces sound, despite the latter's somewhat confused Orcan symbolism. Elsewhere, the familiar Steve Winwood influence is joined by a touch of Caravan in "Picking Up Sticks", while the blend of slide guitar and Kirby's strings transforms the doughty "Dust And Rocks" into the kind of lighters-aloft folk-rock power-ballad we've come to expect of The Verve.

The keenest new direction exhibited on Heliocentric, however, has to be that of "There Is No Drinking, After You're Dead", whose experientialist message is borne on dervish-rock dynamics reminiscent of Richard Thompson at his most bracing. A pity that Weller rather blows it with a middle eight about "...empty pages glistening/In eternity's lie/And Time is but an essensce [sic]/Encased upon the wall" - whatever that means - but then it's probably a mistake to look to rock stars for philosophical clarity. Such considerations aside, Heliocentric may be the best album of Paul Weller's long and chequered career, and an intriguing pointer to possible future directions.

LOU REED | Ecstasy (Reprise)

For a man who would probably consider himself to be a major writer, and certainly one of rock's inspirational touchstones, Lou Reed can be shockingly incompetent when called upon to deal with situations and conditions outside his parochial Big Appleworld view. Just check his patronising attempt to evoke the suppressed rage of the rural downtrodden - complete with death threats against farm bosses! - in "Future Farmers Of America"; or his frankly laughable stab at The Black Crowes' mode of Southern-soul balladeering, "Mad". Not just mad, but bad, and doubtless also rather dangerous to know.

On his home turf, Reed is far more convincing, whether stomping out the impressionistic street tableau of "Mystic Child" or essaying the light Latin swoon of "Ecstasy" itself. But the best pieces here are those on which Lou muses over matters amorous, especially the accounts of collapsing relationships in "Baton Rouge" and "Tatters", the latter a Lambchop-style soliloquy complete with mournful horns. But the excruciating 18-minute Neil Young-ish distort-a-thon "Like A Possum" is an unforgivable indulgence, more than bearing out his admission: "You know me, I like to drink a lot/ And carry on." And then some.

ELASTICA | The Menace (Deceptive)

In the five years that succeeded their eponymous 1995 début, Elastica all but dropped off the pop radar screen, as rumours of imminent dissolution replaced rumours of an imminent follow-up. Several abortive attempts were made to record new material, but it was only when they settled into the current line-up that the sessions began to amount to much. The extra time spent honing the new songs has worked to their advantage: The Menace constitutes a quantum leap beyond its predecessor. Tracks such as the opening "Mad Dog God Dam" still draw on the same punk influences - the Chrissie Hynde cool, the Stranglers swagger - but with greater assurance and inventiveness than before. And although they continue to quote from old Wire tracks, the way in which "Human" employs the classic "Lowdown" riff in the service of android eroticism is a world away from previous adaptations of "I Am The Fly" and "Three Girl Rhumba". The album's one really notable shortfall is in authentic attitude: a track such as "Your Arse My Place" cries out for a touch of the anarchic wildness of a Lux Interior or a Mark E Smith, a fact brought viscerally home when the latter brings his unique vocal character to "How He Wrote Elastica Man".

EINSTÃœRZENDE NEUBAUTEN |Silence Is Sexy (Mute)

Silence is Sexy will surprise those who regard Einstürzende Neubauten as avant-garde avatars ofmetal-banging noise. They still use a wide range of unorthodox sound sources, from industrial horns to pneumatic pistons, but as the album title suggests, they are employed with a subtlety and attention to dynamics that skilfully animates Blixa Bargeld's intelligent and literate ruminations onhistory, astronomy and attraction. Whether he's musing on the nature of molecular activity ("In Circles") or cosmic beauty ("Beauty"), coming to terms with being stalked (the catchy "Zampano") or searching for an identity beyond banal physicality ("Redukt"), Neubauten's settings here are for the most part restrained, inquisitive canvases ofsmall sounds punctuated occasionally by more dogmatic bursts of noise which fix a sense of depth and space.The centre piece is "The Lay Of The Land", an appreciation of the rapidly disappearing, melancholy landscape of Berlin - where "only phantom pain remains" yet in which "the new temples are already cracked/ future ruins".If all that sounds a little too apocalyptic for your taste, be reassured that elsewhere in the album Bargeld does adopt a more Dionysiac attitude, affirming that "Rapture isstill a must".

DOVES | Lost Souls (Heavenly/EMI)

Formed from the ashes of early Nineties acid-house one-hit-wonders Sub Sub, Manchester's Doves display an effortless command of epic tone and ethereal texture on this debut, steering a path through miasmic clouds of guitar noise with their eyes fixed firmly on the transcendent.

But apart from the fog of dubby effects, there's little evidence here of Doves' former incarnation, these twelve tracks being closer in technique and intention to the shoegazing indulgences of such as Slowdive, as though played by the Talk Talk of Spirit Of Eden: luxurious, layered ambient-scapes in which every sound seems chased by its shadow, and nothing seems to have found its fixed form.

The opening "Firesuite" is typical, with flanged vibrato guitars wheeling and circling above a vast, empty, contemplative space in a manner reminiscent of Mogwai; elsewhere, the feeling is more oceanic, courtesy of the moody underwater vibe of "Lost Souls" and the swells of acoustic guitar arpeggios lapping rhythmically through "Sea Song".

Their lyrics, though, rather lag behind the music, pervaded as they are by a disillusion which applies a brake to Doves' loftier musical ambitions.

If they can soar beyond that melancholy space, the sky will truly be the limit.

THE RZA | Ghost Dog - The Way of the Samurai: the Album (Razor Sharp/Epic)

The glut of substandard solo offshoots has rather damaged the Wu-Tang brand over the last few years, but chief helmsman The RZA, at least, can still be relied upon to chop out a nice line in hip-hop mysteria. Ghost Dog - The Way of the Samurai is the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's forthcoming film starring Forrest Whitaker as a "ghetto hitman who lives by the principles and disciplines of the 18th-century warrior text The Hagakure". As with Aimee Mann's recent soundtrack to Magnolia, Jarmusch claims a deep cross-media integrity for The RZA's music, and certainly, Whitaker's spoken quotes from The Hagakure - things such as "Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily" (cheers!) - fit seamlessly into the familiar Wu Tang-world of Shaolin priests and flashing blades. The usual oppressive stasis of The RZA's grooves is leavened here by the slinky, Willie Mitchell feel on the paranoiac "Strange Eyes", while Suga Bang Bang's ragga drawl brings an added quality of incantation to "Don't Test/Wu Stallion". Not sure about the roll-call of 'hood crews who bake cakes in "Cakes", though - is this some kind of Chris Morris wind-up, or what?

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