This week's album releases

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The Independent Culture

ELLIOTT SMITH | Figure 8 (Dreamworks)

All this week's featured album releases are concerned in one way or another with protest, but while the other artists all seem to have found their own ways of directly addressing their concerns, on the strength of the absorbing Figure 8, Elliott Smith has yet to come to such precise terms with his own disquiet. In places, he doesn't even seem to have reached a conclusion about the matter at hand, much less ascribed it a fixed position on the scale of right and wrong, and it's this uncertainty of moral compass that gives his songs their power: while it's easy to predict what Ice Cube or Chumbawamba's stance would be on a specific issue, there's still room for doubt about Elliott Smith's attitude even after the song has finished.

This uncertainty courses through the opening song "Son Of Sam", where references to the eponymous murderer and the Sendero Luminoso terrorists reflect the protagonist's borderline mindset. "I'm not uncomfortable feeling weird," he admits, later adding, "I may talk in my sleep tonight 'cos I don't know what I am". The muscular folk-rock backing underlines the uncertainty, managing to be both jaunty and apprehensive at the same time. Elliott is at his most effective when traversing this grey area: the juxtaposition of the songs "Everything Reminds Me Of Her" and "Everything Means Nothing To Me", for instance, seems to track the way that emotional disruption drives out all other sensation; while elsewhere the furtive melody of "Easy Way Out" tacks skilfully between pervasive resignation and glimmers of hope - like the change from minor to major, to paraphrase Cole Porter.

As on 1998's XO, the production team of Tom Rothrock & Rob Schnapf (Beck, Richard Thompson) helps illuminate Smith's songs with a variety of sensitive settings, ranging from basic folk-rock to more complex arrangements employing stalking piano chords and gently weeping guitar ("Junk Bond Trader"), Pixies-style blending of Goth-punk chords and pop harmonies ("Stupidity Tries"), and Brian Wilson-esque "pocket symphonies" with oblique, idiosyncratic melodies ("Everything Means Nothing To Me"). The diversity of the arrangements reflects the varied emotional terrain of an album whose concerns are about the prickly particularity of our lives, and the problem of how to communicate with others just as crippled with confusion as oneself. Or, at the risk of getting philosophical, can doubt alone provide firm enough foundations for progress?

JANIS IAN | God and the FBI (Windham HilI/BMG)

Like her protest-diva peers, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian's work in the Nineties has been marked by a maturity and intelligence not always shared by her male colleagues of similar age and experience. The political concerns that dominated 1993's Breaking Silence are rather less prominent here, restricted mainly to the title-track's account of the state-sponsored trauma of an activist upbringing ("Ain't no hole for a soul to hide/From God and the FBI"), while her feminist leanings are more subtly disguised in either Dixie Chicks sass and raunch ("Play Like A Girl") or Andrews Sisters harmonies ("Jolene", a celebration of a good-time girl's impromptu street midwifery). Elsewhere, Janis's relocation into the Nashville country scene pays dividends with instant standards like "Memphis" and "Boots Like Emmy Lou's". Except for where parody demands a more generic approach, the arrangements mostly follow Ian's trademark folk-jazz stylings, with fretless bass and percussive detailing adding depth to her acoustic guitar. The results are smart enough to make one sympathise with "Murdering Stravinsky", her critique of the avant-garde obsession with iconoclasm and ugliness.

CHUMBAWAMBA | WYSIWYG (EMI)

WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) seems an oddly inapt assessment of Chumbawamba's method, which involves cloaking subversive sentiments in soft, sympathetic harmonies and cheery singalong melodies, the better to creep in under radio's protective radar. It's rather more appropriate as an accusatory reminder that in matters cultural, we dig our own graves. The majority of the songs here focus on the paper-thin layer of showbiz gossip stretched over our shared experiences, with songs like "I'm With Stupid" and "Shake Baby Shake" mocking the stage-school boy/girl-band machine and its attendant vapid celebrocracy, and "I'm Coming Out" attacking the tabloid obsession with the sexual and pharmaceutical preferences of the rich and famous. "WWW Dot" and "Pass It Along" broaden the debate, criticising the way computers encourage alienation ("Pass it along by word of mouse/Save the world, don't leave the house") and assist the leisure industry in colonising our former communality with their fictions. It's all razor-sharp, particularly in the lyric sheet's lengthy track annotations, though their anti-entertainment stance does rather put one in mind of the lumberjack sawing away at the very branch on which he sits.

ICE CUBE | War & Peace Vol 2 (The Peace Disc) (Priority/Virgin)

This is the follow-up to 1998's War & Peace Vol.1 (The War Disc) - though as with the "Death" and "Life" sides of his Death Certificate album, it's hard to tell the difference between Ice Cube's notions of war and peace. If anything, the worldview here is less balanced than that depicted on its predecessor: there's nothing here as moving as that album's "Ghetto Vet", or as politically suss as "Penitentiary"; instead, the routine bragging and dissing sounds tired and flaccid, while the presence of guests such as Puff Daddy and Dr Dre suggests that Cube's emergence as a movie-biz player has led to the implementation of commercial showbiz considerations in his rap work. The Dre collaboration "Hello" prefigures the promised NWA reformation, though if all they get to do is whine about the lack of respect accorded their pioneer status ("I started this gangsta shit/And this is the thanks I get?"), it'll be hard to enjoy. There are some good moments - "You Can Do It" is entertaining, and comedian Chris Rock's routine as the hip hop fantasist on "You Ain't Gotta Lie" is a laugh - but overall, The Peace Disc sounds like the product of someone spreading their talents a little thinly on their core business.

JOHN TRUDELL | Blue Indians (UlfTone)

If anyone has a bone to pick with the FBI, it's John Trudell, the Native American poet/activist whose mother, wife, and three children were burnt to death in suspicious circumstances less than a day after he ignored threats to lead a march on the FBI building in Washington. This war crime, as Trudell views it, propelled him back into poetry, replenishing his native oral tradition through a series of thoughtful, provocative albums, of which Blue Indians is the latest. Set mostly to blues grooves, Trudell's poems riff on matters such as love, pain, the psychology of assimilation, and the warped values of white American culture, returning often to the lingering fallout from his bereavement: "I fell through some of the wounds/And pulled the scars inside," he explains in "All Nite Cafe", "Fragmented memories are incoming rounds/Blowing my mind more into pieces". It's an intelligent, engrossing album in which lines and themes resonate back and forth between separate pieces: the title-track's claim that "Myth slayers undermine their own realities", for instance, seems to find its natural corollary in "Terminal Neon"'s contention that "Serial killers become the High Priest/In the culture of death without ritual". Recommended.

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