This week's album releases

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The Independent Culture

AIMEE MANN | Magnolia (Reprise)

Magnolia is the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson's highly-acclaimed follow-up to Boogie Nights, though the director says it's rather more than just a soundtrack. In the sleeve note Anderson, an Aimee Mann fan, admits "adapting" her songs into a screenplay, the same way one would adapt a novel for the screen. He was struck by the way "she seemed to be thinking... things that I was thinking", and decided to develop the script for Magnolia - an Altman-esque series of stories about the difficulty of finding true love - around the songs.

It's easy to see what drew Anderson to Mann's work. From her days as prime mover behind adult-contemporary combo 'Til Tuesday, she's demonstrated an ability to burrow beneath the façades of relationships to expose the underlying emotional knots that confound happiness: she's the RD Laing of songwriters, as it were. Take "Deathly", for instance, a song which opens with lines as brutally frank as "Now that I've met you/ Would you object to/ Never seeing each other again?", before explaining such rejection in even tougher terms: "Cause I'm just a problem/ For you to solve and/ Watch dissolve in the heat of your charm."

It's rare in pop music to find a preference for solitude justified with such analytical acuity, but typical of the honesty with which Aimee Mann dissects her characters' motives throughout this suite of songs, in cutting phrases like "The sex you're trading up for/ What you hope is love". That particular couplet comes from "You Do", the only song I know that includes the word "caveats" - which, when you think about it, is central to her work, these songs effectively being misgivings given the voice: and the appropriate voice, at that.

There's a clear, almost bland quality to Mann's singing which reflects the unflinching honesty within her songs: there's no side to her, no attempt at illusion or delusion, no fake hopes or promises clouding the issues at hand. Indeed, they're presented with such honesty that at times merely listening feels like an intrusion.

It's the tension between Mann's disarmingly direct, conversational lyric style and the depth and complexity of the musical design that gives Magnolia its enduring power. The watercolour tints of Chamberlin strings, the occasional wan accordion, and sometimes the deceptive formality of piccolo and oboe augment the piano and guitar-based settings, imbuing the whole album - apart from the two Supertramp tracks tacked on to the end - with a beguiling air of restrained melancholy.

If the film is half as good as this, it should be a corker.

DEAD PREZ | Let's Get Free (Loud/Epic)

There's an interesting stew of sometimes contradictory attitudes and influences bubbling around in this debut offering from avowedly revolutionary rappers M1 and Stickman of Dead Prez: afrocentrism, eastern mysticism (witness the I-Ching hexagram on the sleeve), new-man sexuality, lentil-head vegetarianism, downright racism and (whisper it quietly) socialism. So while it's a welcome relief to find hip-hoppers prepared to eschew the petty territoriality of "the red and the blue" for the African motherland orientation of "the red, the gold and the green" - and something of a shock to hear overt calls for the implementation of a socialist economy - it's frustrating to find them slipping into knee-jerk castigation of "white man's lies" when it comes to the matter of education. "They schools can't teach us shit," they claim, which may be true, but might not be entirely the school's fault. There's a defeatist absolutism in operation here - and in the CD booklet illustration of a school in flames - which negates their righteousness elsewhere, and which, on a more basic level, harms none but those stupid enough to use it as an excuse for everything bad.

ASIAN DUB FOUNDATION | Community Music (London)

The benefits of a decent education are demonstrated on Asian Dub Foundation's Community Music, an album which seethes with the same kind of righteous indignation as Dead Prez's LP, but with substantially more intelligence and precision, its barbs aimed at specific targets like the IMF, Blair's bowdlerised Labour Party, and corrupt cops. Finance figures prominently: "Crash", a pessimistic assessment of looming fiscal apocalypse - "We live in the world that time beGATT" - is corroborated by "Colour Line", a mini-lecture on the racial basis of global capitalism; elsewhere, "Memory War" and "Truth Hides" grapple with the political nature of history. But there's nothing defeatist about Community Music, and the absence of racial separatism is in marked contrast to US hip-hop practice: instead, "New Way New Life" celebrates the success of British Asians who "stayed an' we fought an' now the future's wide open". The same could be said of the music, which features Asian percussion and harmonium alongside buzzsaw guitars, turntable scratches, synth parts and techno beats, the elements cleverly sculpted into dub skanks and rap-metal blasts, like Rage Against the Machine but with more interesting rhythms. It's inventive and inspirational in equal proportions.

PATTI SMITH | Gung Ho (Arista)

Well, at least it's not completely saturated in morbid apprehension of mortality - a welcome contrast to its two immediate predecessors - but Gung Ho is still pretty tough going, thanks to Patti Smith's inability to view matters in less than melodramatic manner. Whether she's hymning Mother Teresa in "One Voice", or dissing politicians in "New Party", she can't resist elevating her discourse to a more pompous level, dragging in ill-fitting classical and religious metaphors which never really succeed in bestowing the intended resonance. In places, she dips dangerously close to the preposterous, particularly in "Strange Messengers", a seven-minute pan-historical epic featuring Smith as a slave-girl criticising her descendants for smoking crack. More successful is "Lo And Beholden", an account of the Dance Of The Seven Veils which alludes to the melody of "Because The Night", but lacks the earlier song's compelling urgency. The main problem, however, is Smith's voice, which it cannot be said has improved with age: there's so little variation to her overwrought caterwauling that after a while, one involuntarily switches off; accordingly, I still have no idea of what the concluding 11-minute title-track is actually about. But perhaps that's for the best anyway.

GONZALES | Gonzales Uber Alles (Kitty-Yo)

The self-proclaimed musical "Supervillain" Chilly Gonzales is a Berlin-based Jewish-Canadian DJ/rapper whose avowed aim is nothing less than to destroy all music as we have ever known it, undermining the pseudo-aristocratic hierarchy of star and audience by transforming the whole planet into rapping MCs. Or something like that. So he can talk a good fight, at least. And judging by Gonzales Uber Alles, he may well have the tools to effect his intended musical demolition, his cheesy loungecore grooves employing the same queasy blend of kitsch and cool as his Finnish counterpart Jimi Tenor, though without the latter's big-beat enthusiasm. Gonzales prefers languid, shuffling breakbeats and stuttering electro clicks, over which he loves to layer grooves made from smears of string samples, noodling organ and electric piano figures, and meandering melodica lines. Pleasant enough as far as it goes, I suppose, though there's something of a smudgy quality to Gonzales' constructions which does take some getting used to. The tracks are all pretty much of a muchness, too, which means that ultimately, there's less here to hold one's attention than on comparable recent offerings, such as the new albums from Luke Vibert & BJ Cole and Don Air.