Pop: This Week's Album Releases

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The Independent Culture

Vol 2... Hard Knock Life


IT MAY have given his chart breakthrough in Britain, but that cringe-making orphans' chorus from Annie he sampled on "Hard Knock Life" may turn out to be something of a millstone around the rapper's neck; for rarely can a single have made the transition from intriguing to infuriating with such dispatch. Not that Jay himself will be that bothered, given his extraordinary success in America, where this album recently spent five weeks atop the charts - an unprecedented feat for a rap record.

Whether this is a good thing for rap is another matter entirely. The cover shot, with Jay surly and stylish alongside his Bentley ragtop, echoes an earlier album sleeve by money-oriented hip-hop duo EPMD, and sends off identical signals of materialistic apathy. The whole world, clearly, can go to hell, so long as Jay's on cruise control. Jay's commanding position has been based less on the content of his raps than his vocal style, which involves tongue and tonsil twisting around absurdly paced strings of rhymes - a technique best employed here on "Nigga What, Nigga Who", a bravura staccato duet with the similarly auctioneer-styled Big Jaz.

A few other numbers approach this standard, and there are occasional neat touches in the backing tracks, such as the tuned percussion in "Can I Get A...". But the overwhelming impression left by raps like "If I Should Die" and "Ride or Die" is depressingly downbeat, a desultory rehearsing of the only narrative available to black American youth today. The most compelling and committed performance here is the anti-snitch diatribe, "A Week Ago" - further evidence, were it required, of the way the modern black American experience has become increasingly defined by criminal discourse.


I'm Back


THE ABSENCE of the exclamation mark in the title rather gives the game away. Back when James was the Godfather of Soul and the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk, there would be not the slightest doubt that he was Back! - make that Back! Back! Back! - with a vengeance. And appropriately so, given that he based his entire musical style, words and sounds, on the principle of exclamation. Here, James is just Back, as if uncertain whether this is cause for celebration. You can hear why: he's hoarse and even less intelligible than usual, and the grooves that Derrick Monk has fashioned for him are flaccid and uninspiring - when James sings "I don't hear no music", he's not kidding. The album's failings are most glaringly betrayed by the clear superiority of the three versions of "Funk On Ah Roll", which is basically just old JB cuts like "Hot Pants" and "The Payback" looped and scratched together with James squawking over the top.


Muleskinner Blues


THOUGH JUST as seminal a veteran as James Brown (in 1956, his "Rock Island Line" served alongside "Heartbreak Hotel" in both the UK and US Top Tens), Lonnie Donegan displays a much firmer grasp of his craft on this, his first studio album in over two decades. It's an enjoyably animated outing which finds him trying out new material like Paul Kennerley's cheerfully sardonic "The Welfare Line", and revisiting old skiffle chestnuts like "Stewball", "Muleskinner Blues" and "I'm Alabammy Bound" in the company of Van (the fan) Morrison, Lonnie's old trad-jazz boss Chris Barber and virtuoso guitarist Albert Lee. Donegan's voice is as keeningly flexible as ever - surprisingly similar to Van's on their duets - and he slips with ease between folk, skiffle, slower blues numbers and even cajun stylings. It's nice to note that "Rock Island Line", the original voodoo invocation of British rock'n'roll, retains every bit of its peculiar pied-piper power more than 40 years on.


Up Up Up Up Up Up

Righteous Babe

THE FEMINIST folkie's 12th album on her own Righteous Babe label is a frustrating, patchy affair which switches awkwardly between contemplative rumination, measured scolding, and several stabs at a kind of skeletal funk-folk that's neither fish nor fowl. It's not a bad record, it just suffers from a lack of focus. The folkier songs are replete with the usual complement of soundbite slogans - "Half of learning how to play is learning how not to play" - and the subdued backings are evocative. But the welter of production embellishment - treated vocals, echo effects, double- tracked vocals, breakdown sections - on tracks like "Angel Food" and "Hat Shaped Hat" suggests that the attempts to apply a mild funk dressing aren't fully thought-out. No sooner have the organ, piano and rhythm section grafted a new solidity on to the material than they're breaking up and scattering in dub-style deconstructions, leaving the songs stranded between genres.


Lost Treasures Of The Ark

Orchard/Jet Star

ANY LEE Perry reissue is a welcome addition to the world's fund of musical madness, and though this triple CD set isn't up to the standard of the 1997 Arkology triple album culled from The Upsetter's mid-Seventies peak period, it fills in many of the gaps in the producer's chequered career. It's a diverse selection, ranging from Perry's early solo work - including "Django Shoots First", the precursor to his 1969 breakthrough hit "Return Of Django" - through to the later dub innovations. The compilation's trump cards are four Bob Marley collaborations, each eked out with numerous dubs (including no fewer than three marginally different versions of "Shocks Almighty", a song Perry revised countless times in his career), though the set is studded with casual brilliance throughout from lesser names in the reggae firmament, with the likes of Dave Barker advocating we do the "Skanky Chicken", and Denzil Ring claiming his lady is "fat - like a bat". WG Grace's, presumably.