This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture

What better way to start the third millennium than with a crop of new or unknown artists' albums? Although, truth be told, such is the mainstream music industry's traditional indifference to the turning of the year that there's really not an awful lot of choice in the matter. With their headline artists' Christmas releases safely up and running by mid-November, the major labels display little inclination to promote anything more between then and late January; indeed, it's actively in their interest to suggest that there's nothing else worth buying than the few measly chart albums stacked dozens-deep in the dump-bins at HMV and Virgin.

What better way to start the third millennium than with a crop of new or unknown artists' albums? Although, truth be told, such is the mainstream music industry's traditional indifference to the turning of the year that there's really not an awful lot of choice in the matter. With their headline artists' Christmas releases safely up and running by mid-November, the major labels display little inclination to promote anything more between then and late January; indeed, it's actively in their interest to suggest that there's nothing else worth buying than the few measly chart albums stacked dozens-deep in the dump-bins at HMV and Virgin.

Accordingly, in recent years the festive season has become the time when those harder-to-shift items are furtively dumped on the market, the labels fulfilling their distribution obligations without wasting time and money on fruitless promotion. This year is no different, with posthumous cash-in jobs from 2Pac and The Notorious BIG, both bearing fancifully blasphemous titles Still I Rise and Born Again that neatly illustrate the desperate mendacity of the gangsta-rap business. Neither, of course, is worth bothering with. Still, with the release schedules temporarily free of heavily-promoted product, it's all the easier to spot the more promising shoestring-budget options that sneak out around the year's cusp.

Such as this début release from Fonda 500, fixtures of the same Hull experimental-pop scene that spawned Salako. Though less concerned than Salako with recognisable songcraft, there's a similar sense of innocent discovery to Fonda 500's work, as they sculpt tentative pop structures from a selection of rickety drums, primitive electronic kitsch and brusque guitars. Some tracks are little more than jingles picked out on cheap Casio keyboards - such as the self-explanatory "Song For A Commercial" and "Casiotone Introduction" - while others, particularly the ambitious "Pops #3", bolt together disparate sections of faltering recorder, fuzz guitar and falsetto vocals into elaborate, ramshackle edifices, like some lo-fi prog-rock combo. An even clearer indication of the quintet's ambitions can be found in the five-part vocal harmonies that draw obvious comparisons with The Beach Boys, with tracks like "When We Are Together We Make No Sound" and "Little Carnie's Hi-Fi" sounding like some of the sillier, more oblique exercises from Smile or Friends .

It's a kooky blend of simplicity and sophistication - a sort of hi-concept lo-fi - that's nicely reflected in the album artwork, which features old electronic devices rendered with naïve affection, and, inside, a drawing of what appears to be Brian Wilson's head surrounded by flying hammers and hairdriers.

Fonda 500's lyrics, too, have something of the engaging non-sequitur appeal of Wilson's late-Sixties work, with a brief testimonial to "Lucky Tokyo" ("...brightest star 21st century") nestling alongside a meditation on astrophysics ("The Glen McCaffrey All Star Singularity"), and elsewhere, an account of animal radios ("Ecoutez Les Grands Animaux Radio"), illustrated with the requisite aural menagerie.

In places, there are suggestions that they may be satirising pop conventions - the lyric to "Betamax" is just the word "baby", repeated 440 times - though the most successful tracks tend to be those on which their obvious affection for the music comes through with least obstruction, like the grunge stroll "Slumbertime", which recalls the melodic urgency of the Pixies. And as with that most sadly mislaid of Eighties bands, it's the combination of innocence and immediacy that gives such spark and freshness to Fonda 500's music, and which overrides any technical shortcomings: their ears, it's clear, hear more than their abilities can realise. So far.

Funkmaster Flex & Big Kap | The Tunnel Def Jam

The Tunnel is New York's premier hip hop club, where house DJ Funkmaster Flex - aka Stretch Armstrong - has been cutting up the grooves for years, having served his apprenticeship at block parties and clubs since the early Eighties. We're talking old-skool style here, two turntables and a microphone setting the world to rights. The guest-list of contributing rappers to The Tunnel offers clear testament to Flex's standing among his peers: Snoop Dogg, Mary J Blige, Eminem, Dr Dre, Method Man, Nas, LL Cool J, Raekwon, Jay-Z, DMX, and, in a coup of sorts, The Notorious BIG and 2Pac rhyming on the same track. Flex's mixes are tough and vibrant, but surprisingly varied, their constantly-mutating sample-grooves manipulated with considerable panache. The freestyle raps struggle to match his standards, though there are occasional highlights: compared with Nas's castigation of "girly-mouth niggas", for instance, Kool G Rap's coinage of the term "wangsta" seems of almost Wildean elegance. But the constant put-downs and threats gives the album an unwelcoming atmosphere of bulging testosterone - and that, as they say, is just the ladies. Quite literally, judging by Lady Luck's complaint: "I got niggas on my dick, and I ain't even got one".

Le Tigre | Le Tigre Wiija

Fronted by riot-grrrl pioneer and former Bikini Kill singer, Kathleen Hanna, fem-rock trio Le Tigre bring a more playful, mischievous approach here to the business of demystifying indie-rock. Imagine Kenickie with an intellectual agit-prop attitude, or The B-52's with catchy lines like "Let me hear you depoliticize my rhyme", and you'll have some idea of Le Tigre's style. Unlike their forebears, however, they're not restricted to the simple indie guitar-rock thrash, threading their songs with primitive loops and samples in a way which recalls Clinton or Cabaret Voltaire. The lyrics, meanwhile, articulate alienation through lines like "The stars are getting in and out of automobiles/ And we keep wondering when we're gonna feel something real", a textbook Situationist critique of the society of the spectacle. But it's not all negative: with what more positive approach could one face the new Millennium than the assertion: "We could fail. So?!"

Sue Garner & Rick Brown |Still Thrill Jockey

The Chicago-based Thrill Jockey label is best known as the home base of American post-rock, but there's probably a little too much music on this album for it to qualify properly for that genre. Recorded with former dB, Chris Stamey, these 12 tracks seem to follow their noses in whatever direction they please, from the string-smeared ethnic-dub groove of "Synthbug" to the cello-tinted folk-rock of "I Like the Name Alice" to the desultory jazz of "Bomb Squad". Garner & Brown's music relies heavily on ambience, with titles such as "Absorbed" and "Damp Spirit" reflecting their predilection for dank, watery atmospheres, realised through a shifting backdrop of clunking marimbas and lurking bassoons - most effectively in the sinister calm of "Swimmingly". Their songs, though, suffer somewhat from a lack of definition: the most memorable one here is a minimal version of John Lennon's "It's So Hard", set to a single repeated bass note.

Molotov | Apocalypshit Universal

Rap-metal outfit Molotov are the Mexican equivalent of Rage Against the Machine, except in their case the rage is less troubled by political analysis, manifesting itself simply as spluttering Hispanic invective strewn with scatological expletives. Their blunt critiques of authority have seen them banned by Mexican radio and condemned by the Catholic church as "satanic" (of course), a situation derided in the track "Exorsismo"; but their blend of funk-metal bass and drums, pierced by spiky thrusts of guitar, has won them a considerable following in Latin America and Spain. With Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato at the helm, this follow-up to their million-selling debut Donde Jugaran Las Niñas? pushes Molotov's musical envelope further, with banjo, electric piano and vibes added to the grooves, though their natural inclinations are always more towards speed-metal riff or apocalyptic trudge. But it's hard to dislike an album that starts (and ends) with the title being belched.

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