This week's album releases

DE LA SOUL | Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump CHRIS SMITHER | Live As I'll Ever Be MJ COLE | Sincere VARIOUS ARTISTS | Caroline Now! LOUISE | Elbow Beach
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The Independent Culture

DE LA SOUL | Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Tommy Boy)

DE LA SOUL | Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Tommy Boy)

Since their ground-breaking 1989 debut 3 Feet High And Rising, De La Soul's path has been unwaveringly downwards, through the self-immolatory attempt to reclaim their character De La Soul Is Dead to the uncertainties of the albums which all but bore out that assertion, Buh'loon Mindstate and Stakes Is High. And though Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump undoubtedly reverses that trend, it's still a matter of conjecture whether that's ultimately due to the trio's own efforts or down to those of their collaborators. Certainly, the album's most engaging moments are those which herald guest appearances, like Busta Rhymes bringing his berserker spirit to "I C Y'All", or Redman braying out the infectious hook to "Oooh", or Chaka Khan adding a smooth veneer of vocals to "All Good?". The first part of a projected AOI trilogy, Mosaic Thump finds De La Soul returning to the scattershot moralistic humour of their debut, with the tracks punctuated here and there by "Ghost Weed" skits, in which the eponymous drug affords satiric access to different hip-hop styles. Unfortunately, their impact is sabotaged somewhat by the difficulty in differentiating these rap satires from the group's own bona-fide raps, which are every bit as verbose and frequently more amusing. One's constantly aware, too, of being an outsider in the small, tightly-circumscribed world of hip-hop: the track "Foolin'", for instance, pursues the familiar rap route of self-aggrandisement by denunciation, though it's never completely clear of whom; for all the genre's supposed straight-talking, such specifics are kept vague and nebulous, leaving one apparently listening to one side of an argument. The trio's verbal talents are, however, working at something like their full power again, with some neat fiscal metaphors turned in "View" - "I want it big like white boy's wallet/Credit delivered, Fed Excellent/...Your plastic ass'll get swiped" - and their anti-gangsta stance well represented on their manifesto "Declaration", in which they claim "The average MC sells terror/We nail terror up against the wall for target practice". And though not quite as joyous a rummage through pop's sample-box as their debut, there's a welcome clarity and directness to the way they use the Marvin Gaye loop in the romantic rap "With Me", the Latin samples in "The Art Of Getting Jumped", and the re-triggered fragments of the Enter The Dragon theme in "Oooh". Musically, if not physically, it's less a continuation of the old De La Soul than the first offering from a new, streamlined version, leaner but no meaner than before.

CHRIS SMITHER | Live As I'll Ever Be (Evangeline)

A singer-songwriter since the mid-Sixties, Chris Smither makes records only "to create opportunities to play", as pretexts for live performance. Recorded at concerts in Ireland and America, and featuring cuts from four previous studio albums, this tenth album could, then, be said to offer a definitive representation of his work. Smither works alone - just his voice and his six-string acoustic - but still swings more than most full combos, his ceaseless foot-tapping underscoring subtle but forceful picking, while a deep, careworn voice animates such thoughtful ruminations on life's Big Questions as "I Am The Ride", an inquiry into destiny and belief which finds him admitting, "The problem is more with my sense of pride/That keeps me thinking me instead of what it is to be/I'm not a passenger, I am the ride". Fate, faith, endurance and ethics are all covered intelligently here, in songs studded with pithy, aphoristic lines like Smither's observation that "Passion is feeling in motion/Compassion is standing still/...Hearing is letting it happen/To listen's a work of will" (from "Small Revelations"). With his bluesman's inveterate melancholy balanced by a keen apprehension of the frightening nature of freedom, and featuring at least one undoubted Dylanesque classic in his meditation on evil, "The Devil's Real", Live As I'll Ever Be offers an impressive account of an unjustly overlooked talent.

MJ COLE | Sincere (Talkin Loud)

Already appearing on this year's distinctly substandard Mercury Music Award shortlist, before it's even appeared in the shops, MJ Cole's Sincere is this year's equivalent of Roni Size/Reprazent's New Forms - a tedious, overlong fanfaring of a supposedly vibrant, supposedly "new" British music form (drum'n'bass then, "garage" now) whose limitations become more spectacularly evident with each successive track. The parallels between the two genres are obvious throughout: the abrupt, unfriendly rhythms, the preference for deracinated "jazz" elements, and the reliance on formulaic soul-diva vocals that has dogged all UK R&B since Soul II Soul. And with any luck, Sincere will kill off interest in garage just as completely as New Forms saw off drum'n'bass (after all, not even David Bowie is doing jungle any more, though who knows what's currently parked in his garage?) As with jungle, the basis of Cole's garage grooves lies in the tension between deep bass throb (techno, rather than double bass) and overly fussy drum programme, over which he layers little cascades of electric piano, acoustic guitar arpeggios, desultory flute and sax fills, shimmers of strings, and the kind of halfwit Pirate Radio deejay blather that habitually litters London's airwaves. Perfect for those who favour smoked-glass windows in their BMWs. And about as imaginative, too.

VARIOUS ARTISTS | Caroline Now! The Songs Of Brian Wilson And The Beach Boys (Marina)

Few would dispute Brian Wilson's reputation as one of the few bona fide geniuses of pop, though this compilation does its damnedest to dilute that assessment with its High Fidelity-sad-anorak-style favouring of the obscure and arcane ("Do Ya"? "Rainbow Eyes"? "Go Away Boy"? "Busy Doin' Nothin'"?) over the more obviously brilliant - a strategy which ironically makes Brian's (and the band's) genius seem far smaller than it is. The opening track, Eugene Kelly's "Lady", is typical - not just a Dennis Wilson song, but one only available as an obscure DW single, rendered with taste, but hardly rivetting listening. This preference for unreleased obscurities and mediocre tracks from second-rate albums like Friends and The Beach Boys Love You is reflected too in the contributors' roster of cult types (Alex Chilton, Jad Fair) and nonentities like the "legendary '60s pop group" The Free Design (no, me neither), while the bulk of the contributions appear to derive from the Pastels/Belle & Sebastian weedy-Scots-indie caucus, when obviously the only Scots who should be allowed within a mile of a Beach Boys song are The Jesus And Mary Chain. Well, apart from Norman Blake, whose "Only With You" is, along with Eric Matthews' "Lonely Sea", one of the few tracks here which glows with the warmth of the sun.

LOUISE | Elbow Beach (EMI First Avenue)

The cover may feature her in windswept-and-interesting hippy Madonna pose, but Elbow Beach finds Louise shrewdly pursuing a more Britney-esque course, right down to the bland transatlantic accent and the little catch in the throat so ruthlessly employed in the single 2 Faced.

Then again, only a fool would dare be original in today's pop market, so despite the fact that Louise co-writes most of the album's dozen tracks, there's a strange, Stepford void where its character should be. Instead, there are several routinely brazen celebrations of adolescent sex ( City Boy Fix, In Our Room, For Your Eyes Only and Bedtime), interspersed with homilies on the trustworthiness or otherwise of friends ( 2 Faced, That's What Friends Are For) and one peculiarly ambivalent self-assertiveness anthem, Beautiful Inside, which finds her one moment decrying egotism and materialist attitudes ("Nothing means a thing if you're not beautiful inside") and the next spouting about "higher aspirations" like some mid-Seventies union boss.

Almost as peculiar is The Best Thing, in which one learns, with some surprise, that the best thing about being a woman is that one can be a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom, a dichotomy which - excuse me if I've got this wrong - used to be regarded as a restrictive limitation rather than a means to true fulfilment.