Pop: This Week's Album Releases

Roots Manuva

Brand New Second Hand

Big Dada

LIKE SOMETHING out of the paranoid fictions of Thomas Pynchon, there are now two music industries existing side-by-side in Britain. The more powerful, mainstream one dominates the public perception of pop culture with a dire parade of showbiz fluff and celebrity crossovers, promoting a strategy in which a performer's soap-opera or sitcom profile is vastly more important than their music. Such has, admittedly, always been the case, though the four major conglomerates have never before wielded quite such a stranglehold as they do now.

Fortunately, there's a network of small labels fulfilling the vital function which the majors' A&R departments have complacently neglected. Thanks to them, 1999 is already shaping up as a vintage year, with tremendous releases by Smog, Jimi Tenor, Jim O'Rourke, Colin Reid, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Pop-Off Tuesday and Beth Orton joined here by the debut offering from Rodney Smith, aka .

The title of Roots's album is a concise summation of the sampling aesthetic, the way that new vessels are wrought from old materials and memories - especially, in his case, from the Jamaican dance-hall strut of the early Nineties, rendered here through deep techno basslines and terse drum cracks. There's a warm, twitchy swagger to cuts such as "Clockwork" and "Oh Yeah" that's utterly irresistible. Elsewhere, Manuva varies his beats with some originality, as when a disjointed, arhythmic groove is used to evoke the odd atmosphere of "Strange Behaviour".

Roots himself describes his style as "Wonky beats, mid-tempos, bleeps and blurps, crazy, zany phraseologies and intergalactic organics", which comes close, but doesn't quite convey the trip-hoppy mood or the unusual mix of menace and deadpan comedy in his raps. With his tone of lofty, nonchalant assertiveness and his dark declamations upon decaying social structures, I'm reminded more than once of both Rakim and the Wu-Tang Clan, though even they would be hard pushed to equal "Juggle Tings Proper", where street-level obligations are weighed against the wider geopolitical picture. is by some distance the most significant and original new voice in hip-hop. And he's British, too.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida

Rocket

SOMETIMES, FACED with the tide of corporate hogwash that is the modern record industry, words fail me. Would that a similar affliction had stricken Tim Rice before he decided that the first rhyme of this album - sorry, this "cross-platform multi-media project" - would pair "ruler" with "minusculer".

This version of the great Verdi operatic warhorse Aida is effectively the follow-up to The Lion King, Elton John and Tim Rice's last commission from Disney, though here there are no cute cartoons to sell the songs, just a parade of tired old rock lags such as Sting, Lenny Kravitz and Tina Turner, augmented by boring but bankable younger talents such as Shania Twain, Boyz II Men and, of course, The Spice Girls.

The result is the kind of awesome abomination that should have aficionados of camp gleefully shouting the worst lines back at the performers, and arguing as to which is the more hilariously ill-matched of Elton's duetteers - LeAnn Rimes, Lulu, Janet Jackson (awful!), or the spectacularly dreadful Celine Dion wannabe, Heather Headley. Still, at least now we know who put the "Aieee!" in Aida.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

River of Song

Smithsonian Folkways

SINCE ITS establishment in 1948, Moe Asch's Folkways label has served as the Smithsonian Institute's aural arm, a repository of American cultural roots dedicated to ensuring that the work of such seminal figures as Leadbelly and Dock Boggs is available to hear today. This two-CD set, the sound- track to a PBS television series, uses the Mississippi river as a geographical thread by which to link the musics (mostly roots musics, despite the ill- advised attempt to shoehorn in the likes of Soul Asylum) of the American Midwest and South. The journey starts in the Minnesota headwaters with a Chippewa Indian pow-wow chant and the Skal Club Spelmanslag's bowed- saw rendition of "Red-Headed Swede", proceeding through St Louis (folk, jazz, blues), Memphis (R&B, gospel, rockabilly) and Mississippi (blues) to Louisiana (jazz, blues, cajun, and creole R&B). Despite a few incongruities - Tex-Mex music from Illinois? - it's a richly varied ride, illustrating the country's cosmopolitan make-up. It's educational, too: how else would music lovers know they should at all costs avoid getting stranded in the musical wastelands of Iowa and Wisconsin?

DAVID THOMAS

Mirror Man

Cooking Vinyl

THE LATEST album by the Pere Ubu founder, an offshoot of his "Disastodrome" South Bank season of last year, also involves a musical journey, this one taking place "in the space between where you are and where you want to be". Following such American pioneers as Harry Partch, it's an evocation of intangible geographical presence, Thomas using collaborators with a finely-tuned sense of place - Jackie Leven, Linda Thompson and Peter Hammill - to detail his notional Nowheresville, USA. The poet Bob Holman's impressionistic beat travelogue "Mirror Man Speaks" opens proceedings in fine style: against a shimmering haze of sound, he skilfully sets the mood of suspension you slip into while travelling, that sense of being lifted out of the present into the timeless state of disinterested observer. From there, the ruminations upon places from Montana to Memphis build up to a national montage, a bricolage of road signs, advertising hoardings and observations dedicated to putting the local back into locality. As David Hild observes in his "Ballad of Florida", it's not a small world any more, not since Disneyland became Disneyworld.

SKUNK ANANSIE

Post Orgasmic Chill

Virgin

WHAT WITH Pre-Millennial Tension and now Post-Orgasmic Chill, there's a bit of a Present Pretention Surfeit hanging around rock's dimmer corners these days. Life goes on pretty much as before in Skunk Anansie land - the wee bald lass is still upset about one thing or another, and frankly, the rest of us could care less. Even with a lyric sheet, songs such as "On My Hotel TV" and "We Don't Need Who You Think You Are" still seem like little more than incoherent rants studded with spiky buzz-words - black, gay, nigga, blood, crucify, blame, god, kill, victim - which lose any impact they might have contained under Skin's less than tender ministrations.

There are half-hearted attempts to add a little more spritely variety to the golem tread of their trademark heavy riffing, by blending in the occasional techno passage to "Charlie Big Potato", or ladling strings over tracks such as "Tracy's Flaw" and "Secretly", but any intended gradations of mood are hidden behind Skin's acidulous vocals.

She appears to have mistaken shrieking for intensity, and the result is the complete absence of any emotional tone save reproach.

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