War & Peace Vol 1 (The War Disc)
THOUGH HIS labours have recently been more dedicated towards cementing his position as a showbiz player (through his various film roles and his debut as writer/director with The Players Club, Ice Cube has still found time to knock together the kind of rap album that makes most of his peers sound more than a little sad and small-minded. And if the 18 tracks on The War Disc don't cover enough ground as it is, there's the prospect of The Peace Disc to follow in January.
Ice Cube has always viewed the world in dualistic, starkly black-and- white terms - 1991's bleak Death Certificate featured "Death" and "Life" sides, roughly reflecting the fears and hopes, respectively, of black American males in the Nineties - though his grasp of the larger picture has rarely been more acute than here. Along with a certain maturity, Cube's movie career has also given him access to a better class of sound effects, an impressive array of gunfire, planes, hardware and helicopters that makes the album sound more like the soundtrack to Jane's Fighting Machines than hip hop.
But what sets Cube apart from the average run of rappers are his rap routines, which take the gangsta worldview that step further: where any neighbourhood hood with a gun and a gang allegiance can boast and threaten with a modicum of style, few would attempt to relate the harrowing story of a disabled gangsta, as he does here on "Ghetto Vet", a narrative every bit as gripping as an episode of NYPD Blue. Behind the visceral surface of these street dramas lies a sharp political intelligence with few illusions about the true nature of power, as demonstrated in Cube's riff on American penal policy, "3 Strikes You In", and particularly in the angry "Penitentiary", where he asks: "can the Crips and Bloods be so rotten, when the Trilateral Commission is plottin'?"
With such a cynical perspective, Cube's smart enough to realise his own position: a Dr Frankenstein responsible for the creation of gangsta rap, now able to pursue more diverse outlets for his creativity . As he acknowledges: he's "America's Most Hated, liberated by this shit I created".
NWA Straight Outta Compton 10th Anniversary Tribute (Priority/Virgin)
IS IT really 10 years since Straight Outta Compton sent ripples of outrage across the (white) Western world? My, doesn't time fly when you're having fun! As it happens, if proof were ever required of Ice Cube's pre-eminence in his field, one need look no further than this tribute album, pairing modern rappers with tracks from NWA's milestone debut (for which Cube provided much of the lyrical venom).
It's a simple matter of character, which, for all the hot air and attitude pumped into the genre, is a commodity in short supply in modern hip hop. It's one thing to have Snoop Dogg bringing his offhand menace to "Gangsta Gangsta", and quite another entirely to have to sit through lifeless re- treads of the album's duller tracks by such wannabes as Boo Kapone, Mr Mike and Big Punisher.
"Fuck Tha Police", in particular, offers an object lesson in style: this version by Bone Thugs N Harmony just sounds limp-wristed and petulant alongside the original, Krayzie Bone and his chums lacking the sheer vituperation which may be Ice Cube's greatest gift to hip hop.
Signs Of Life
THEN AGAIN, the dangers your average gangsta faces on the streets of Compton pale in comparison to the tribulations encountered in Martin Carthy's Signs Of Life. Such suffering is here: a bellicose lord perishes at sea; a criminal faces deportation; trapped coal-miners await their subterranean doom; and a pleasant day's hunting is ruined by incest, bestiality and suicide. It's all part of the everyday world of traditional folk, a place where the authorities abuse their power, fair maidens get the short end of the stick, and tragedy is rarely very far away. So, not that dissimilar to Compton after all.
For this first solo outing in donkey's years, Carthy - that's Martin Carthy MBE now, of course - has chosen songs which were landmarks in his life, allowing him to set trad-folk standards such as "Sir Patrick Spens" and "Prince Heathen" alongside a few surprising pop choices, such as a beautifully bleak, blues reading of "Heartbreak Hotel". It's tremendous stuff, especially a haunting version of The Bee Gees' "New York Mining Disaster 1941", whose dolorous chord structure adapts perfectly to the trad-folk style.
FEAR OF POP
FEAR OF POP is Ben Folds' other project, and it is unenticingly described as "an album of instrumental and spoken word music", on which Folds alone overdubs most of the instrumental parts, and dear William Shatner gets to slice himself thickly over one track.
It's a second cousin of sorts to the recent sample-collage album by Hal Willner, and to Barry Adamson's imaginary-movie soundtracks - there's a similar sense of clever-dick pastiche. Unfortunately for Folds, he crucially lacks both the passion of Adamson and the wit of Willner.
You're never in any doubt about his dilettantism here, as Folds ricochets from one style to another in a cartoonish, bull-in-a-china-shop manner, the effect of which is to drag everything down to the level of incidental music.
Ultimately, Folds comes across as a sad American version of Harry Enfield's office clown, Colin Hunt, his repertoire of musical feints and jokes failing to disguise his essential humourlessness. At times, the laboured zaniness gets to be quite unbearable: one comes to yearn for a bar or two of good, honest, irony-free music.
To Be Or Not To Be Bop A Lula
(Cup Of Tea)
THE BRISTOL label Cup Of Tea's reputation for cutting-edge breakbeat grooves remains assured with this debut offering from Fruitloop, a duo comprising Tara Strong and Daniel Goddard.
Like most contemporary computer grooves, Fruitloop's are eclectic, but they are subtly so, working their magic without ever pushing too heavily in one particular direction. Instead, the bulk of these 10 tracks has an amorphous, lightweight texture, which alters slowly as the shifting shuffle-rhythms unfold: it's as if they are floating around, but in a purpurposive manner.
Former Boy George cohort, MC Kinky, turns up in the guise of feisty ragga rapper Cantankerous for "Jumpin" and "Outta Control", though despite the abundant attitude, there's ultimately no greater weight to the talk of rockin' and a-movin', bomba-claat and crack-smoking than there is to the light skanking grooves themselves.
The best cuts are left to the end, where the spooky depths of "Ran And Tried It" and the closing remix of Krysko's "Serenity" demonstrate an acute grasp of the delicate balance between propulsion and atmosphere.