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This Week's Album Releases

JOE JACKSON | <i>Night and Day II</i> ERYKAH BADU |<i> Mama's Gun </i> WU-TANG CLAN | <i>The W</i> ARTFUL DODGER | <i>It's All About the Stragglers</i> DIDO | <i>No Angel</i>

JOE JACKSON | Night and Day II (Manticore) It's always good to have one's preconceptions confounded: Joe Jackson, I admit, has never really made much of an impression on me before, but it's impossible to ignore an album that presents a musician in such confident command of both his subject-matter and his musical vocabulary as Night and Day II.

JOE JACKSON | Night and Day II (Manticore) It's always good to have one's preconceptions confounded: Joe Jackson, I admit, has never really made much of an impression on me before, but it's impossible to ignore an album that presents a musician in such confident command of both his subject-matter and his musical vocabulary as Night and Day II.

A belated follow-up of sorts to the acclaimed 1982 song-cycle that regarded Jackson's expatriate home of New York with the keen eye of a newcomer, Night and Day II traverses similar territory, but with the added weight of experience colouring his vignettes of vibrant city life. There's a distinctly theatrical side to Jackson's songs: condensing entire lives into a few vivid lines, they're like mini-musicals, each hinting at a whole world of desire and pain.

It's a risky business: at his worst, Jackson can resemble a more gifted Billy Joel; but at his best, his grasp of orchestral techniques brings him close to Leonard Bernstein. There's certainly a distinct flavour of West Side Story to songs such as "Hell of a Town" and "Stranger Than You", where pizzicato strings and Latin percussion underpin his musings on New York, "a town where there's always somebody stranger than you".

It's a panorama that's fascinating and ugly by turns, Jackson conveying both the magnetic glamour and excitement of life in a cosmopolitan metropolis - the reflective "Stay" is as much a musical embodiment of the Manhattan skyline as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" - and the inevitable downside, where stress breeds paranoia and humans take on a more reptilian aspect. A series of guest vocalists helps to bring Jackson's characters to life: Marianne Faithfull effortlessly evokes the aching regret of the lonely careerist in "Love Got Lost", and Sussan Deyhim likewise captures the immigrant's baffled awe in "Why". There's an appropriately soiled pride, too, to the bitter reflections of Dale De Vere's lady-boy hooker in "Glamour and Pain", in which Jackson eschews his usual orchestral-jazz stylings in favour of a mannered disco pulse more akin to the Pet Shop Boys.

The stand-out tracks are those in which Jackson confronts tragedy with dogged perseverance, through a bereaved Latina's recollections of a nightclub fire disaster ("Happyland"), and a son's letter home recounting his search for a runaway sister ("Dear Mom"): the latter, in particular, expertly encapsulates the late-20th-century atomisation of family structures. Not the prettiest of pictures, but one of the more revealing.

ERYKAH BADU | Mama's Gun (Motown) It's some measure of Erykah Badu's swift ascent that despite having released her debut album a mere three years ago, she seems to have been a leading figure on the R&B scene for much longer. Doubtless the self-styled "warrior princess from another sun" would ascribe her apparent ubiquity to the timeless nature of her material, which displays a keen awareness of things cyclical, from the motions of the planets to more personal biorhythms. But it's just as much the result of her music's firm foundations in the funk and jazz strains of the Seventies, as realised through the Soulquarian production team responsible for D'Angelo's splendid Voodoo. As with that album, there's a relaxed, organic manner to these grooves that's perfectly appropriate to Badu's reflections on tracks such as "Orange Moon" ("How good it is/ How God is"), "Penitentiary Philosophy" (You can't win when your will is weak") and the irresistible "Bag Lady" ("All you need to hold on to is you"). Her trump card, however, is the core of self-denial underpinning songs such as "Cleva" and "AD2000", which sets Badu firmly apart from her less enlightened peers; which of them would declare of a disputed suitor, as she does in "Booty", "I don't want him/ 'Cause of what he doin' to you/ And you don't need him/ 'Cause he ain't ready"? In such selfish times as these, that's sisterliness of a special order.

WU-TANG CLAN | The W (Loud/Epic) According to the Clan's producer RZA, The W is strictly "a B-Boy album", one designed to make you "take off your silk shirt and put your hoody back on" - surely an implicit criticism of the creeping Lexus-isation of hip-hop. It's certainly more concerned than most with preserving life, tracks such as "Careful (Click, Click)" evoking the routine neighbourhood atmosphere of random menace, while "Let My Niggas Live" and "I Can't Go to Sleep" - collaborations with Nas and Isaac Hayes, respectively - directly address the growing death toll of black youth. Compared with the monumental Wu-Tang Forever, its predecessor from 1997, The W may seem somewhat lacking in ambition and scope, but then, so do all other rap albums. Most of the familiar Wu-Tang characteristics are present here - the snippets of Shaolin kung fu melodrama, RZA's ominously static grooves - but the absence of the incarcerated Ol' Dirty Bastard (featured only on the Snoop Dogg duet "Conditioner") drains the Clan's raps of their more outlandish verbals. Which is not to say they're getting soft, for all the commercial punch of the single "Gravel Pit"; certainly, while Method Man is still coming up with memorable images such as the line in "Protect Ya Neck" about how he'll "put on my gasoline boots and walk through hell", there's no shortage of distinctive diction in the Wu-Tang collective.

ARTFUL DODGER | It's All About the Stragglers (Columbia) With record racks bracing for the Christmas tidal wave of corporate garage compilations, it's indisputable that the terse two-step garage beat has been the breakthrough sound of 2000. And with their string of hits for such as Craig David and Romina Johnson, it's equally indisputable that the Artful Dodger duo of Mark Hill and Pete Devereux are the leading stylists of the new sound. Unlike their main rivals, True Steppers, whose album seems to feature much the same groove all the way through, It's All About The Stragglers demonstrates the diversity of the Dodger's productions, equally effective in showcasing the warm baritone of Lifford on "Please Don't Turn Me On", the breathy vulnerability of Michelle Escoffery on "Think About Me", and Robbie Craig's Stevie Wonder-ful phrasing on "Woman Trouble". The sparse, skeletal groove of "Think About Me" is a typical Dodger design: little more than a rimshot and a triangle, stalked by a spidery bassline and a synth-string swoon, providing an elastic net to carry Escoffery's vocal. But it's the aptly titled "Outrageous" that best illustrates their unique way with singers, in the liberties they manage to take with Lynn Eden's voice - chopping, looping, editing and speeding up, treating it as just another musical element to be tinkered with accordingly - without relinquishing its position at the heart of the track.

DIDO | No Angel (Cheeky/Arista) Dido's voice will already be familiar from Eminem's epistolary single "Stan", which liberally samples her song "Thank You", staining its air of Zen acquiescence with more sinister shadows. Thanks to that, and to the use of "Here With Me" as the theme to the ludicrous alien-teenagers TV series Roswell High, the north London singer has become this year's third-biggest-selling UK artist in America (after Radiohead and Sting), shifting a million copies of this debut album since its US release last December. It's an impressive first effort, packed with thoughtful, well-rendered expressions of devotion, rejection and self-assertion, though its sharply divided presentation styles speak volumes about the divisions between current US and UK tastes. Despite the attentions of the producers Pascal Gabriel and Youth, the early tracks here seem to want to present Dido as a sort of latter-day Suzanne Vega, while the seven tracks helmed by Dido and her brother Rollo (the guiding hand behind Faithless and Dusted) reflect a more British sensibility, one less embarrassed at embracing dance culture, dub reggae and the like. Despite being ignominiously shunted to the rear of the album, the latter tracks fit her more snugly, the siblings' light, soaring settings displaying a natural ease and grace that comfortably match Dido's blithe breathiness. Recommended.