POP / Albums: Getting the goat

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PUBLIC ENEMY

Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age

(Def Jam / Island 523 362-2)

THE GOATS

No Goats, No Glory

(Ruff House / Columbia 476937 2)

may have changed labels, but everything else stays pretty much the same on Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age: the finger-jabbing, hectoring tone of Chuck D, the whiney, Huggy Bear sneer of Flavor Flav, the deft scratches from Terminator X, the urban-nightmare production from the Bomb Squad. The group's association with the thrash-metal audience, courtesy of their tour with Anthrax, has added little by way of musical influence, though it may have been partly responsible for the more lumpen nature of the singalong chants hiding behind rhetorical titles like 'What Side You On?' and 'What Kind of Power We Got' (to which the shouted answer, repeated interminably, is 'Soul Power]').

The racial politics are still starkly black and white on tracks like 'White Heaven / Black Hell' and Flav's baffling 'Godd Complexx', but the thick seam of paranoia which underlay Apocalypse 91 has largely receded in favour of raps which address issues specific to the black community. Drugs, for instance, get ruthlessly short shrift on 'Used to Call it Dope' and 'Live and Undrugged', while Chuck D defends his anti- alcohol stance on 'I Stand Accused' and, most significantly, takes to kicking lumps out of the West Coast gangsta- rap scene on 'So Watcha Gone Do Now?'. 'Everybody talkin' that drive-by shit, everybody talkin' that gangsta shit,' he fumes angrily, perhaps mindful that the guns / rap association played for revolutionary piquancy by PE themselves has almost inevitably been hijacked for less defensible ends. But they're still operating on a platform of negation, still spurred by an agenda set by white America: there's no positive prospectus here for a notional black planet, just a surly swathe of prohibitions.

Then again, you can understand Public Enemy's despair when you listen to something like the Goats' No Goats, No Glory. Widely acclaimed for the vitality of last year's Tricks of the Shade, the Goats have shrewdly scanned the current rap scene and upped their gun quota to something closer to the Cypress Hill optimum armoury, largely abandoning their debut's De La Soul-inspired oddball outlook and verbal trickery. The dope quota has risen, too, with plenty of lip-service paid to 'fat blunts' and skunk, though they can't do it with quite the panache and comic menace of Cypress Hill.

Most regrettably, they've also ditched the socio-comic tableaux of Vinnie Angel, which furnished the unifying thread running through their debut; the closest the Goats get to that kind of humorous social commentary here is 'Butcher Countdown', a parody of Casey Kasem on an America's Top 10-style show responding to a request to hear 'He's My Nigger' by the Niggers. Even viewed generously, as a comment on the dehumanising effect of the repetition of racist insults, this is hardly the height of political wit. It's a sad comment on a rap album, however, that the most interesting - not to mention articulate - track, the eight-minute plus 'Revolution 94', is a montage of found TV and radio samples; the portrait it paints of America is both more immediate and more complex than any of the tracks on which the group themselves rap.

ECHOBELLY

Everyone's Got One

(Rhythm King / Fauve FAUV 3CD)

THE TITLE'S initials are apparently significant on this highly touted new British indie outfit's debut album, hinting at the spunky self-assertion of songs like the single 'I Can't Imagine the World Without Me'. In particular, Echobelly have a special interest in combating the patriarchal attitudes which they see as preventing women from being whole, complete persons. As Sonya Aurora Madan sings in 'Father, Ruler, King, Computer', '. . . what connotations in these loaded words / a spinster and a bachelor / I am whole all by myself'.

Musically, the group range from the power-pop of the aforementioned 'I Can't Imagine . . .' - which includes a corny trumpet fanfare that's strolled over from Penny Lane - to more punky-thrash textures, courtesy of ex-Curve guitarist Debbie Smith. But it's Madan's appeal upon which the group's fortunes most heavily rest: a natural, androgyne beauty, her voice is the single most noteworthy aspect of their sound, possessing an elegant clarity bizarrely at odds with the music's darker intentions. It's like hearing the Clash fronted by a children's TV presenter.

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