This week's album releases

DIRTY BEATNIKS | Feedback WILLIE NELSON | Night and Day TITAN | Elevator DUSTY TRAILS | Dusty Trails JILL SCOTT | Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol 1
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DIRTY BEATNIKS | Feedback (Wall of Sound)

DIRTY BEATNIKS | Feedback (Wall of Sound)

IN 1995, just as the Dirty Beatniks were making their first contribution to the emergent big-beat scene with the Bridging the Gap EP, a group called Earthling were releasing their debut (and only) album Radar, one of the more interesting additions to the trip-hop canon. Four years later, Earthling's rapper Mau found himself - I'm guessing, but he may have been under the influence of something or other - trapped among 6,000 ravers at a huge show in Paris, being stalked by giant Japanese robots, one of which picked him up and ate him (see what I mean?). In the robot's stomach, Mau bumped into the ghost of Henry Miller, who instructed him to return to London and wait for a sign.

Upon his return, Mau spotted a Dirty Beatniks flyer and decided he should be in a band with such a cool name. Tracking down groovemeister Neil Beatnik, he related the story about the giant Japanese robot, and Neil gave him a copy of an unpublished Miller book, Feedback, saying, "We've been waiting for you. What took you so long?" Apocryphal or not, it's entirely appropriate that the two should be brought together by serendipity and Henry Miller, for in Mau, Neil has found a figurehead befitting the Dirty Beatniks name: one steeped in existentialism, poetry and bohemian attitudes, prepared to ride the breaking wave of inspiration wherever it may take him.

Not for Mau the crowded cul-de-sac of gangsta-rap: as in his Earthling persona, he operates here as the radar, flashing on images and observations of the world as it whirls around him. But where once this same method was used to stabilise his own position within the disorienting barrage of information, Feedback finds him taking the opposite route, trying to lose himself within that flow. The album is full of images of dissolution, destruction and discorporation, most effectively in "Kris Kristofferson", where Mau muses, "you make no noise when you're destroyed... maybe we're all alone... maybe we never existed?" over a looming, industrial-noir groove that wouldn't be out of place on Death In Vegas' The Contino Sessions - a comparison strengthened by Mau's vocal resemblance to Bobby Gillespie's downbeat sneer.

Neil Beatnik's propulsive, churning grooves offer the perfect vehicle for Mau's ruminations, with the hypnotic drive of tracks such as "Disco Dancing Machines", "Curled Up In A Bassbin" and "Suicide Mission" carrying his words along like twigs in a torrent, "... bouncing and swaying/tuned to the frequencies/that unscramble memories". The result is an album as intriguing as it is irresistible, a Basement Jaxx for bohemians.

WILLIE NELSON | Night and Day (Pedernales/SPV)

So definitive, in branding terms, have Willie Nelson's grizzled-outlaw visage and careworn voice become, that it's easy to overlook the fact that he's also a pretty decent guitarist, too.

Night and Day, his first-ever completely instrumental album, seeks to remedy that oversight, as well as give his band a modicum of their due. It's like an extended version of that point in the set where everybody gets to do their eight-bar solos, as Willie mutters introductions and the audience applauds dutifully.

It's fine for the first couple of numbers, "Vous et Moi" and a cover of Django Reinhardt's "Nuages", both of which showcase Willie's sidekick Trigger in his favoured Djangological mode, their jaunty country-jazz crossover style sounding like his own elegant, Continental take on Western Swing; but thereafter, things slide inexorably towards the easy-listening racks, with old-codger versions of standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Honeysuckle Rose" incorporating overly deferential breaks from fiddler Johnny Gimble and Willie's pianist sister Bobbie.

The title-track is the best thing here, taken in a jazzy conjunto manner, with the rhythm section extending the Django connection by vamping like the Hot Club de France. Apart from that, it's pretty slim pickin's, I'm afraid.

TITAN | Elevator (Virgin)

Already garnering universally rave reviews for their live shows, Mexican techno-funk trio Titan (pronounced "Tee-tan") display a confident grasp of modern big-beat mores on Elevator, which, when it's not sounding like a psychedelic south-of-the-border Fun Lovin' Criminals, sounds like the kind of thing Bentley Rhythm Ace might make if they weren't quite so concerned with being self-consciously zany. The potential for annoyance, then, is huge, but Titan deftly skip over such pitfalls by bringing something of the renegade spirit of Mexican lounge auteur Esquivel into the pop arena, stirring samples of Percy Faith, Negativland and the theme from Starsky & Hutch into bewildering, genre-bending montages of choppy wah-wah guitar, organ stabs, occasional flurries of Spanish guitar, tootling flutes and comical vocal hooks, all anchored to frontman Jay De La Cueva's subterranean Bootsy-style basslines. Not for nothing did the Beasties' Mike D try to sign them to Grand Royal: at their best, the well-machined syncopation of "King Kong" brings to mind the terse funk of Talking Heads, while the compact groove of "La Frequencia Del Amor" suggests some ungodly, cartoon-world combination of The B-52's and The Jetsons. Tremendous stuff - titanic, even.

DUSTY TRAILS | Dusty Trails (Atlantic)

An exercise in winsome synergy, Dusty Trails finds Luscious Jackson's Viv Trimble and The Breeders' Josephine Wiggs engaged in the fashionable postmodern muso pastime of fabricating "cinematic" soundscapes - in this case, by the sound of it, for some languid Sixties Euromantic fluff involving glamorous young things cruising the French Riviera in open-topped Bentleys. Roughly half songs and half instrumentals, it yokes the Gallic charm of Françoise Hardy and tropicalismo elegance of Astrud Gilberto to the exotic musical impressionism of Lalo Schifrin and Les Baxter.

Loping bass-lines sway against mellotron strings, and louche horns tug at enigmatic electric harpsichords in tune-tableaux like "St Tropez" and "Spy In The Lounge", while Trimble reveals the most exquisite facility with vocal harmonies on songs such as "Est-Ce Que Tu..." and "You Freed Yourself".

There's a vague story of sorts being sketched out - something to do with the hesitant, transient nature of love - which reaches a neatly judged climax when Emmylou Harris appears to sing "Order Coffee" with a regretful desolation that casts Trimble's earlier impersonal sophistication in a new light. A modest, understated little gem whose appeal grows with each listen.

JILL SCOTT | Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol 1 (Hidden Beach/Epic)

So, who is Jill Scott? Well, she's the latest addition to R&B's growing line of female supporting players currently grasping the opportunity to take a more central starring role. Like Kelis and Angie Stone, Scott's launching her solo career following a backroom apprenticeship writing songs and singing backup for such as Common, Eric Benet, Will Smith ("The Rain") and most notably her homeboys The Roots, with whom she co-wrote the Grammy-winning single "You Got Me". Overseen by Smith's cohort Jazzy Jeff, Who Is Jill Scott? reveals her to be an accomplished jazz-soul poet in the vein of Erykah Badu and Dana Bryant, dropping cool, erotic rhymes over sparse, laidback grooves like "A Long Walk" and "Love Rain", and slipping into Chaka-Khan style scat-soul in more agitated moments such as "It's Love", the funkiest cut here. She's a decent enough singer, but her real gift lies in blending a conversational, vernacular style, primarily concerned with the dull routines of life, with more poetic flights of the imagination, as when the reverie of "Do You Remember" is illuminated by mytho-historical musings: "We built sandcastles in the Serengeti/Don't you remember me?/You splashed my face with Nile water/Daughter of the Diaspora you named me."