This week's album releases

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The Independent Culture


Since the decline of Public Enemy and the dissolution of Arrested Development back in the early- to mid-Eighties, politically conscious rap has struggled to make much headway against the dark tide of gangsta criminality that has flooded hip-hop. Boots Riley, the avowedly Communist prime mover behind Oakland's The Coup, plays cleverly with the culture's outlaw inclinations on this third album, with his afro and album title harking back to the era of Yippies and Black Panthers, and his barcode-prison sleeve design pointing to a future of digital enslavement.

Riley's political credentials are deep-rooted. At 15 he joined the Progressive Labor Party's International Committee Against Racism, and was soon organising school protests and "hip-hop edutainment" concerts to address issues of welfare rights and police brutality. Throughout Steal This Album, his eye stays focused on his political goals (basically, a revolution to outlaw exploitation) with adroit commentaries on the brute facts of ghetto life - the proliferation of debt, the absence of health-care insurance (" seems like he's lost the will to pay"), and the endemic poverty and violence. When cars appear in his narratives, it's not as the trappings of criminal capitalism, but as an illustration of the difficulties of living in an old-banger, rust-heap economy; and when guns appear, it's in the context of the revolutionary call-to-arms of "20,000 Gun Salute".

Over well-turned, sinuous grooves reminiscent of the Southern-fried hip-hop funk of early Arrested Development, Riley regales the listener with his "politicalsymphoniclyricalnarcotic" raps, taking care to keep his tales entertaining and readily comprehensible. Accordingly, he eschews the genre's customary private language in favour of more direct articulation, with simple but witty constructions making sharp use of black cultural references, as in "Muthafuckas tryna live like the Huxtables/ Comfortable/But my bank account ain't functional".

The album's most impressive track, "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night", is a tour-de-force tale of familial revenge, with an orphaned son growing up to redress matters with the father-figure responsible for his mother's death, waiting while Jesus serves out a 15-year jail term before exacting vengeance. Unlike most rappers, however, Riley concentrates not on the act of violence but on its preconditions, the son acknowledging the influence his stepfather has had in determining his own descent into criminality. He may, it's implied, be able to avenge his mother's death. But who will save him?

SANTESSA | Delirium (Disco Volante)

There's something of Astrud Gilberto's cool detachment about Santessa's singing on this debut album, along with more than a touch of the young Marianne Faithfull's fallen-angel convent-girl appeal. The two influences combine to captivating effect on Delirium, which offers a new take on boudoir soul for the strung-out generation, an updated version of the kind of thing the producer, Stuart Mathewman, has done before with Sade and, more recently, new soul auteur, Maxwell. For Santessa, he's devised a gentle trip hop sound that shifts imperceptibly between funk, dub and ambient modes, conjuring a silky new-age rock-steady skank for "Eyes On You", a springy shuffle for "Nightimes", and an understated cocktail-funk groove for "Best Thing". The shimmering, mirage-like settings and pure, almost transparent vocals combine in similar manner to Morcheeba, with the narcoleptic insidiousness of tracks like "Sometimes" and the single "Phased" perfectly matching such dream-like expressions of alienation as "Seem to be phased/Intentionally dazed" and "Sometimes I feel that something is taking me over... that my nature is changing". The result, for all Santessa's protestations of isolation, is the sexiest sound I've heard so far this year, oozing eroticism from every pore.

EMBRACE | Drawn From Memory (Hut)

If Drawn From Memory is a better album than Oasis' Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, it's not because of any improvement in Embrace's songwriting or performance, but simply a case of them remaining doggedly the same while Oasis' standards have plummeted: the mediocre will out, as it were. And this album is so determinedly mediocre it's hard to imagine that wasn't actually the intention, with songwriting by numbers, singing by brickie, and guitar by the bucketload, Richard McNamara ladling wah-wah over everything as if trying to ape the Verve that nobody really liked. Most of the time, Embrace sound like they're trying to inflate an Inspiral Carpets b-side to epic proportions, but they invariably seek to ascend the epic by the most routine route possible. Their lyrics, meanwhile, are not so much emotional illuminations as lists of instructions couched in a bland second person singular, as if they had deep knowledge to impart. Songs proceed ploddingly from A to B to C, oblivious to brevity, wit, and the power of a well-turned phrase. Whoever said a picture was worth a thousand words could well have been talking about Embrace; but who'd want to see a picture like that?

GIANT SAND |Chore of Enchantment (Loose)

Howe Gelb has kept Tucson, Arizona's Giant Sand operative for nearly two decades now, in a variety of guises and line-ups. The death of long-time collaborator, Rainer Ptacek, has left the group trimmed to a basic core of just Gelb and Calexico duo, John Convertino and Joe Burns, although the late slide guitar maestro's passing has clearly had a much deeper effect than that, Gelb's grief overflowing from his earlier solo tribute Hisser to lap around the edges of Chore Of Enchantment. These are songs of acute emotional discomfiture, concerned with the barriers we erect to prevent our own success, the difficulty of finding new directions, and the personal nature of pain. Chore Of Enchantment is an emotional roller-coaster ride, with Howe Gelb ultimately seeking solace from the knowledge that "Anyway is the only way to go/Relying on eye to eye to know/Depending on what, not who, you know". Though best known for their signature brand of desert-dry guitar-rock, the Giant Sand sound on this album depends much more on the mournful tones of mellotron and organ, with Gelb himself affecting the murmured intimacies of Leonard Cohen one moment and the wracked piano blues of Tom Waits the next. This is not one of the year's easiest listen, but one of its more rewarding.

CHICANE | Behind the Sun (Xtravaganza)

Nick Bracegirdle, aka Chicane, deals in a televisual mode of composition, with each track of Behind The Sun offering a widescreen evocation of some yawning vista or other - it's music whose validation lies in its fidelity to familiar cliches and stratagems of film and TV scoring. The opening track, "Overture", is typical - a spiralling descent through clouds into a weightless Alpine ambience, gradually warmed by a slowly looming sunrise. Likewise, there's the oceanic vastness of last summer's hit "Saltwater", with the siren cooings of Clannad's Maire Brennan adding a touch of mermaid wonder; and the hypnotic "Low Sun", whose methodically cycling Steve Reich-ian flute and keyboard figures float above the most discreet of tambourine and bongo rhythm tracks. But for a music which tries to conjure a sense of the elemental, these pieces seem to consist solely of air and water; there's no trace of anything earthy here, and the closest one gets to fire are the rays of a distant sun. Ultimately, the relentless logicality of the progressions, allied to the inoffensiveness of the tonal palette, leaves Chicane occupying the same Ibiza-lite territory as Robert Miles. Coming soon to a natural history documentary near you.