DESPITE HAVING, by anybody's standards, a problematic year - domestic troubles, run-in with the NYPD, break-up of his band - Mark E Smith has managed to come up with the best Fall album in years. The Marshall Suite seethes with righteous indignation and restless imagination, whether the band are powering imperiously through the breakbeat Krautrock of "(Jung Nev's) Antidotes" or essaying an obscure rockabilly cover like "F'oldin' Money" (a welfare-state cousin to "Summertime Blues" which includes the great line "Well, I went to the social just to get a little pension"). As usual, Smith's rants and ramblings do their best to evade rational explication, and his vocals are sometimes heroically ignorant of the music's key or direction; but it's in that contrary tension between music and vocal presence that much of the band's unique power resides. Yet the most moving tracks here are those which cling most tenaciously to Smith's personal circumstances - the oddly tender "Birthday Song", and "On My Own". Sometimes, one's muse needs a little tribulation to kick it into life.
THE FIRST Afro Celt Sound System album rather overplayed the basic idea of Irish/African crossover grooves, and while Volume 2: The Release focuses more on songs, it's still a fairly underwhelming experience, considering the resources Simon Emmerson and his multi-national band have at their disposal. There are, admittedly, some lovely pieces here: one features Sinead O'Connor and Iarla O'Lionaird duetting over a rolling, bass-heavy ambient drone; another threads James McNally's whistle and N'Faly Kouyate's kora delicately through gently interlocking rhythms. But several others sound like halfway houses between activity and authenticity. It's this fastidiousness about authenticity which holds them back: these blends don't stretch their parent styles enough, with no wildness or weirdness about the way they lock together. It's all very pleasant, but one suspects that, in trying not to tread on purist toes, Emmerson and his colleagues have turned the proud traditions of two continents into little more than muzak. Coming soon to a dinner-party near you.
GERMAN PRODUCTION duo Oliver Bondzio and Ramon Zenker are better known as Hardfloor, under which name they had an international hit with the 1992 acid-house anthem "Hardtrance Accperience". Their identity altered through a superhuman feat of bad spelling and pitiful sleeve design, they return here with a bout of Big Beat that kicks funky new life into the genre. Hugely propulsive, it's a three-decade alliance of dancefloor strategies, with contemporary drumbeats and squelchy acid house synths allied to judicious quotes from the likes of Allen Toussaint and Bill Withers. It's packed with character, not least because - contra techno purists - Bondzio and Zenker recognise the humanizing value of rhythm guitar: so much of the appeal of tracks such as "Blueberry View" and "Grand Royal" can be traced to those slick, sinuous wah-wah chops. The overall feel is of a latterday, virtual-state Fatback Band: there's a similar simplicity of purpose about their grooves, and unlike many of their colleagues, they waste no time in getting to the point, and staying there.
IN A street-level artform such as hip hop, success invariably breeds jealousy and confusion, both starkly discernible on Nas's follow-up to his huge 1996 success It Was Written. That album's dynamic, documentary feel has atrophied here into the familiar dreary litany of drugs, bitches, guns and greed, soured by a rising tone of arrogant paranoia. No wonder that one track finds him complaining of being hated, when on another he deliberately snubs old friends. You'd think the examples of 2Pac and Biggie Smalls might induce a little humility, but you'd be mistaken. When he addresses the subject, Nas prefers to romanticise their deaths risibly - "would you return to us as the resurrection of Christ?" - and then trot out the usual cop-out about black youth having nothing but "hoop dreams and hood tournaments". There is no imaginative feat to compare with the previous album's gun autobiography "I Gave You Power"; instead, Nas now seeks character in apocalyptic blather - a sad demise for one of the few rappers who could balance ghetto crime dramas with a keen awareness of wider social issues.