This week's album releases

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The Independent Culture


The most obvious thing that sets Smog's wonderful new album apart from this (and most other) week's releases is its refusal to pander to modern notions of pop activity and the measures that Bill Callahan takes to avoid too overt a display of volition. There's a deceptive equanimity to the album that packs a much more powerful punch than rock's usual high-decibel soul-baring.

Last year's Knock Knock was Callahan's twisted attempt at making "an album for teenagers", with bubblegum glam-rock and a children's choir as strange, unsettling bedfellows alongside his customary lo-fi ruminations. For the most part, Dongs Of Sevotion finds him back on home ground, its spare, dry songs inhabiting the grey area where melancholy shades imperceptibly into mordant humour. Its territory is most obviously delineated in the pause between the line "Dress sexy at my funeral, my dear wife ..." and the pay-off "... for the first time in your life", where the troubling juxtaposition of sex and death is resolved in bitter cynicism. Or, equally, in the contradiction between his wry, self-deprecating assessment "I am not easily led/ Despite the hair" and its setting, a contemplative space of minimal piano phrases. There is a constant tension throughout Dongs Of Sevotion between what's happening in the lyric and what's happening in the music.

Callahan brings his own sense of time (as opposed to tempo) to his work: a stark, unhurried approach that makes songs such as "Devotion", "Easily Led" and "Strayed" seem like elongated pauses for reflection on matters that are far too late to alter. The latter, in particular, is one of his best pieces; a wistful confession of infidelity whose lingering power resides in a few devastating chord changes. Perhaps more than any comparable pop artist, Callahan exemplifies the dictum about art being "recollection in tranquillity".Sparsely etched backdrops of small, precisely chosen sounds charge that tranquillity with tension. The approach allows him to tackle matters as distressing as death, deceit, rumour and assault without gross displays of gory outrage or emotional self-indulgence. It has a subtlety comparable to the conversation in "Distance", which is described as "... like the beating taken in a dream/ Where no real blows are landed and the only harm is in memory". And all the more painful for it.

PINK FLOYD | Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live 1980-81 (EMI)

Conceived from the outset as a cross-media exercise to be realised as record, stage show and film (wot - no book?), The Wall was the most grandiose of Pink Floyd's projects, an undertaking so vast and troublesome it split the band apart. In the booklet accompanying this belated record of the stage show, Dave Gilmour admits that the wall itself was for him "a metaphor for the intimacy we had lost as a stadium band", and that the show's tight structure offered little room for improvisation or spontaneity - which begs obvious questions about the point of this document. Separated from the visuals, this package exposes the ponderous baggage of what clearly should have been a DVD release, the whole edifice basically boiling down to a few imposing pillars - "Another Brick In The Wall", "Comfortably Numb", the excruciating oompah operetta "The Trial", maybe "Run Like Hell" - between which they suspend a hundredweight of fluff. The situation's hardly helped by the inclusion of two or three extra tracks in the first half, presumably to give the wall-builders more time to complete their task; and in retrospect, the main theme of alienation might have been more sharply rendered by dispensing with the whole wartime orphan/Vera Lynn subplot.

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".

COMMON |Like Water for Chocolate (MCA)

"That jiggy shit is over - the war is on," claims rapper Common on this fourth album, setting himself apart from not only pop-rap but gangsta-rap too. Whether there's much room for profitable movement outside of hip-hop's commercial twin peaks remains debatable, but Like Water For Chocolate may be the most user-friendly contribution so far to the wave of "conscious" rap currently revitalising the genre. In Common's world, there's always an extra wrinkle transforming the familiar clichés, like the whoremaster sweet-talking a potential employee in "A Film Called (Pimp)", who finds himself being mutually appraised for business purposes by an even more outrageous female pimp, played by MC Lyte. There's an intriguing balance to the album which sees Common paying tribute to inspirational figures like Fela Kuti and Black Panther heroine Assata Shakur, whilst letting the sheer pleasure taken in wordplay bubble through in lines like: "Why do they say 'never say never' when they know that ain't right?/'Cos to say 'never say never', you got to say 'never' twice". And with the likes of The Roots and D'Angelo involved in the productions, the settings are just as interesting as the lyrics, not least on the opening track, "Time Travelin'", a dark, echoey dub-funk-jazz groove in the Bill Laswell mould. Recommended.

SOULWAX | Much Against Everyone's Advice (PIAS)

As with much current British indie music, the lingering influence of Radiohead hangs over this impressive debut release from Belgian group Soulwax. But though lines like "Don't come back to tempt me, I'm happy in my misery" (from "Temptingly Yours") could be the motto on Thom Yorke's coat of arms, the recurrent references to Saturday in several songs suggest that, however bad things get, their spirits always seek replenishment in weekend relief, however brief the respite. Based around the Dewaele brothers, Stephen (vocals) and David (guitars, keyboards), the band deals with familiar Radiohead concerns (the difficulty of communication, the transience of pleasure, the paralysing prospect of love) rather more lightly than most of their peers. And they do it with greater stylistic range, too, successive tracks switching between muscular blues-rock, string-tinted piano ballads, staccato punk riffs, indie introspection, mellotronic psychedelia and stylish funk-metal-lite, stretching even to include techno synth scribbles and human beatbox percussion in "Too Many DJs". Such diversity may ultimately work against them, which would be a shame: as Stephen Dewaele sings in "More Than This", "Guess I had it coming / Ambition is my worst vice".