This week's album releases

WYCLEF JEAN | The Ecleftic SPARKS | Balls Recognition WORLD PARTY | Dumbing Up NIAMH PARSONS | In My Prime
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The Independent Culture

WYCLEF JEAN | The Ecleftic (Columbia)

WYCLEF JEAN | The Ecleftic (Columbia)

Lauryn Hill may be the most richly garlanded ex-member of The Fugees, but having helped to create huge hits for Whitney Houston ("My Love Is Your Love") and Carlos Santana ("Maria Maria") as well as scoring his own success with "Gone 'Til November", Wyclef Jean has not only confirmed his position as the creative heart of the disbanded trio, but staked out his own solo territory with some aplomb.

Small wonder, then, that he should get a little tired of people enquiring about a possible reunion, especially when they're mostly prompted by commercial rather than creative considerations. "All I hear is Fugee this, Fugee that, where Fugee at?" he complains on the opening track of this second solo effort, in a performance that brings some much-needed panache to the tired hip-hop strategy of defending one's success by dissing one's jealous detractors ("You know who you are, eight-bar superstar," as he crushingly puts it). And though he welcomes the prospect of a reunion - Lauryn and Pras have only to call him, he claims - The Ecleftic shows that he really doesn't need it.

The punning title is well earned: for all the genre's piratical way with samples, few hip-hop albums are as boldly eclectic as this. Besides the usual funk, soul and reggae elements, there's a duet with Youssou N'Dour about the 41-shot police victim Abadou Diallo, and even - I kid you not - a surprisingly faithful cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". Another track finds Wyclef claiming, "I feel like the Haitian Frank Sinatra," while the boldest crossover attempt of this or any other year must surely be his duet with Kenny Rogers, an over-ambitious adaptation of the bearded crooner's "Know When to Hold", which stitches the divergent rap and country genres together with a few terse power-chords.

While the very existence of a rap/country market is still in some doubt, no such qualms attend "It Doesn't Matter", an amusing 2-Tone ska-style collaboration with the WWF wrestling champion The Rock, aimed squarely at America's huge grapple-fan constituency. Wyclef's affiliation with the cartoon violence of the WWF's steroid pantomime sits in interesting contrast to his views elsewhere on real violence - "They need to chill with the gunplay," as he advises in "Thug Angels" - and the representation of violence in other entertainment media: "Hollywood got a lot of kids twisted." As for his own position as a rapper of some influence, it's a relief to hear Wyclef clarifying, in "Da Cypha", the metaphorical nature of his art: "My lyrics must have been misinterpretated,[sic]" he explains. "For instance, when I talk about a gun, I mean my pen and paper." Would that he were not in such a minority in his own profession.

SPARKS | Balls Recognition

You have to admire the grit and determination of Ron and Russell Mael: though still known only for one, possibly two, mid-Seventies singles, they've managed to parlay that slim hold on public awareness into a career fast approaching its fourth decade.

Balls - a brave title, for sure - is their 18th album, though only their first since 1994's comeback, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. As with that collection, it attempts to lug the quirkiness and off-beat humour of their Seventies style into the modern era, resulting in a sort of glam-techno crossover that's ultimately as irritating as it is entertaining.

"Aeroflot" is a stomper in the grand Sweet style, underlaid with a Prodigy beat, while their technological love-letter "Bullet Train" applies similar rhythmic renewal to a Kraftwerkian synth-motor. Elsewhere, disco shuffles carry "More Than a Sex Machine" and the single "The Calm Before the Storm", though in the case of the latter, the busy superstructure is somewhat at odds with a song ostensibly about ennui.

In their defence, it should be noted that Sparks carry their influences more lightly than World Party's Karl Wallinger, and with an appealingly self-deprecating humour, as demonstrated in "It's A Knockoff", an observation of the way fakes and replicas proliferate even in our emotional lives.

WORLD PARTY | Dumbing Up (Papillon)

"Crawling into light I see the meaning of it all/ But I just can't work out why I still feel irrelevant and small," sings Karl Wallinger on the question-begging "What Does It Mean Now?", one of the bouts of fevered hand-wringing that make up his latest album. The most probable reason for his low self-esteem is that, for all his facility, Wallinger remains a small talent, his recordings still footnotes to the greater glories of the artists who inspire him.

Like Oasis, he's piggybacking on the shoulders of giants, though in mitigation it should be acknowledged that he's at least using both shoulders. The song in question, for instance, is one of two done in Neil Young style(s), while the Lennon-esque nasality and cynicism of "Another 1000 Years" continues Wallinger's mining of the Beatles' legacy.

The most plundered inspiration is Dylan, whose many unwitting contributions include having his rollicking, hilarious "115th Dream" used as the template for "Who Are You?", a dour condemnation of Western foreign policy. Bob's also clearly the inspiration behind "Always on My Mind", the verbose state-of-the-union message that closes the album - though he can't be held responsible for the joyless cast of Wallinger's diatribe, humour being the baby lost in his attempt to drain the bathwater of dumbed-down pop.

THE WEBB BROTHERS | Maroon (Mews 5)

The Webb Brothers are that rarity, an American band with Anglophile leanings. Produced by Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths), their second album draws not only on the style and sound of left-field Britpop acts such as Baby Bird and Super Furry Animals, but also on the pervasive melancholy of the last two decades of UK indie-rock.

Maroon takes as its theme the cycles of hedonism and guilt that merely distract from, rather than assuage, the spiritual pain that prompted the indulgences. "The Liar's Club" opens proceedings, with a sardonic poke at the self-deluding nature of feel-good party culture, before the narrator is brought up short by the shock of "I Can't Believe You're Gone".

Thereafter, the realisation of what's been lost is confronted in a series of increasingly regretful songs - "Suddenly Aware"; "Are You Happy Now?", punctuated by desperate outbreaks of denial such as "Fluorescent Lights", in which attempts to drown sorrows just lead to the donning of beer goggles: "She's been on the scene and she's probably clean/ I want to take her home."

To his credit, Street has applied a cheerful gloss to the material, but there's ultimately too great a disjunction between the desolate mood and the over-indulgent settings: however intense the pain, it's clearly not bad enough to sour their enjoyment in expressing it.

NIAMH PARSONS | In My Prime (Green Linnet)

The peculiar magic of traditional folksong resides in the tension between the violence of the subject matter and the purity of its delivery, as tragedy is met with dignity. It takes a special voice to bring off, and Niamh Parsons is certainly special enough to join the ranks of such as Norma Waterson and June Tabor.

This follow-up to last year's Blackbirds and Thrushes features a dozen more songs dripping with treachery, bravery, deceit and death, rendered either a cappella or with restrained accompaniment that avoids the brazen tearduct-squeezing tendencies of traditional Irish music.

There's a powerful sense of mortality looming over many of these songs: as soon as young Willie goes swimming in the "Lakes of Coolfin", for instance, you know he's not coming back, while the sibling rivalry of "Two Sisters" - appropriately presented as a duet with Niamh's sister Anne Parsons-Dunne - slips so precipitously into murder that in a mere three minutes there's a drowning, a hanging and aboiling-in-lead.

But whether dealing with inconstant lovers ("Horo Johnny", "Black Is the Colour"), unwitting incest ("Orphan's Wedding") or the deceptive swiftness of ageing ("In My Prime"), Parsons' careful attention to the twists and turns of emotion pays dividends.

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