Public Enemy

He Got Game

(Def Jam 558 130-2)

"People can expect something different from this time around," says Chuck D in the press release for this, their first release since 1994's Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age. "We have never released two albums that sound alike and will continue to challenge what people are hearing and what they are exposed to." Alas, PE's progress through the Nineties has been inexorably downward, a trajectory that He Got Game fails to arrest, despite the return of Professor Griff, once banished for anti-Semitic proclamations.

Constituting the sound track to Spike Lee's new film about basketball, it is obsessively concerned with the morality, politics, money and culture of that game. Unfortunately, it's an area so thoroughly investigated over the past decade that it can't help but seem woefully out of date.

The track "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps" offers Chuck D's angry analysis of the footwear industry scam that preys on black basketball wannabes. Ten years ago, the claim that kids were being killed for their trendy trainers might have been both shocking and prescient, but now raises little more than a shrug. And the moral high ground of the group is a little rich, since Chuck is a trainer-wearing teen icon just as much as Jordan or Rodman. The depiction in "Super Agent" of sports agents as some latterday combination of pimp and slaver comes as no surprise to anyone unfortunate enough to have sat through Jerry Maguire.

used to be way ahead both in their raps and backings collaged by the Bomb Squad. But He Got Game lags behind both their own earlier albums and modern hip-hop modes, struggling to keep abreast of more contemporary styles, getting the likes of Danny (Black Grape) Saber and Wu-Tang's Masta Killa in to add a flourish to a few tracks. Sadly, it all just sounds a bit dull

Lou Reed

Perfect Night Live In London (Reprise 9362-46917-2)

I don't know what your idea is of a perfect night in London, but mine certainly doesn't involve an hour or two in the company of the only man fit to challenge Van Morrison for the title of rock's "Grumpiest Old Cuss".

Recorded at last year's Meltdown Festival at London's South Bank (organised by Reed's partner Laurie Anderson), Perfect Night Live In London oddly lacks the kind of dynamism you expect from live rock shows, due to Reed's infatuation with a new acoustic guitar, and his decision to let it dominate the show's sound.

Accordingly, his band provides the most delicate of accompaniment - virtuoso jazzer Fernando Saunders is allowed to offer only the ghostliest traces of fretless bass, Mike Rathke threading only the most occasional and undemonstrative of lead guitar lines through a few songs. The whole sound is built on restraint, which allows - or requires - the songs' lyrical bite to provide the outstanding features, which is not always the most entertaining option. Later songs, such as "Sex With Your Parents" and "Dirty Boulevard", work well in this style, as modern extensions of the classic talking blues style, but earlier material such as "Vicious" and "Perfect Day" itself seems slightly anaemic, denuded of its former presence.

TORI AMOS

From The Choirgirl Hotel

(Eastwest 7567-83095-2)

This is the latest installment from Tori Amos's diary of pain and was prompted by her miscarriage. Or so the press release claims, since the lyrics contain fewer references to babies than a Pulp song about a wardrobe; for the most part, the songs seem to be random compilations of phrases too loosely edited together to sustain interest in their deciphering. The most direct lyric is probably "Jackie's Strength", where the image of Jackie Kennedy is used as a beacon of female integrity, bolstering a teenage girl's first fumbling, anorexic attempts at sexual attraction. "If you love enough, you'll lie a lot/Guess they did in Camelot," reckons Tori in the album's sharpest lines. Unfortunately, they prove to be the exception rather than the rule in terms of clarity, most of the album being awash with impervious images such as "Black dove, you're not a helicopter/You're not a cop out either," which cops out comprehensively when it comes to meaning.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

FunKungFusion

(Ninja Tune ZEN CD 33)

A two-disc compilation from Coldcut's Ninja Tune imprint for those lacking either the time or the inclination to follow the constant flux of dance modes, FunKungFusion is the most satisfying and diverse collection of its kind since Headz 2, Mo' Wax's 1996 package. Recognising no strict stylistic boundaries, welcoming drum 'n' bass, big beat and trip-hop, it even allows on Vibert's "Slipped Disc" the return of the "Funky Drummer" riff, reckoned uncool for the last four or five years.

It's a parade of eclectic oddity, from Mr Scruff's surreal sonic opera "Fish", stitched together from TV and other sources, to Cabbageboy's Zappa- esque progressions, by way of Ryuichi Sakamoto's fat, propulsive "Anger" and Coldcut's virtuoso live scratched beat collage "More Beats And Pieces". Most impressive of all are Funky Porcini's "River Of Smack", a slow uncoiling of Lethe's bonds, and Amon Tobin's "Melody Infringement", a delightfully sleazy blend of cool jazz horn and movie-soundtrack strings. Highly recommended.

FRANK BLACK AND THE CATHOLICS

Frank Black and the Catholics

(Bias 370 CD)

It's not difficult to see why Frank Black's British, American and European labels all passed on this latest album from the former Pixie and "Grunge Godfather".

Recorded live as a stereo demo, it's a duller extension of the bland riff-rock of 1996's The Cult Of Ray, which was some way duller than his previous solo albums, which were ... well, you guess the rest.

The songs are less concerned with sci-fi nonsense than usual, being roughly equal parts autobiography and religion. Mostly, these are songs of heaven and belief and saints and prayer, rendered with scant melodious appeal, as if the proximity of religion had driven out the last few traces of pleasure, leaving behind a dusty husk of dutiful, unhedonistic riffing.

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