ALBUMS : ` "Chapter 1" offers a starkly compelling portrait of the current state of the hip-hop art'

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Muggs Presents the Soul Assassins

Chapter 1

Columbia 486767 29

In the increasingly dangerous world of hip hop, the fashion for rappers to group together in posses or crews takes on a greater urgency as yet another high-profile, chart-topping victim - The Notorious B.I.G., shot dead last Sunday - falls prey to the genre's endemic gun law. Usually circling round a nucleus of one or two prominent members, such organisations as The Dogg Pound, Dr Dre's Aftermath, Ice-T's Rhyme Syndicate, The Westside Connection and The Wu-Tang Clan offer strength in numbers - but they also bring the broader danger of shared targethood. You pays your money and you picks your allegiance, carefully, by all accounts.

In the case of this showcase by DJ Muggs, the brilliant producer responsible for the infectious grooves behind hits from Cypress Hill and House of Pain, the Soul Assassins seems a largely artificial posse, since many of those involved (Dr Dre, Cypress Hill, Mobb Deep, Fugees and Wu-Tang Clan) already have prior allegiances elsewhere. Perhaps, echoing the complex, highly organised network of treaties among the thousands of Crips and Bloods gangs in the US, it's a situation strikingly akin to the EC, with smaller posses grouping together, the better to combat physical and economic threats from their opponents. Or, of course, it could just be a musical collaboration between like-minded chums.

Whatever the reason, Chapter 1 offers a starkly compelling portrait of the current state of the hip-hop art, with Muggs's eerie, barren productions closely following the Wu-Tang formula of creepy piano and string loops overlaid with generous samples of sinister movie dialogue - a full 90 seconds' worth on the intro to Cypress Hill's "Battle Of 2001", and a hefty chunk of Bogey in Key Largo prefacing MC Eiht's "Heavy Weights". The rappers, meanwhile, are mostly better heard in this one-shot form than at full automatic-fire album length, with the Goodie Mob's "Decisions, Decisions" providing a razor-sharp social analysis in Last Poets style, and Wu-Tang's RZA and Genius/GZA operating with typical logorrhoeic panache on "Third World".

The most cutting line, though, belongs to Dr Dre, who defines his own prospects thus: "Accept no limitations; Dre losing his stack/ Is slim as chances of Michael Jackson getting his black fans back". In this most fiercely colour-conscious of musical genres, it's an interesting opinion to hear voiced on an album based around a white (Italian-American) producer. Perhaps pigmentation is, after all, only skin-deepn

THE GOURDS

Dem's Good Beeble

Munich Records MUSA 501

If you like your country music left a little raw and unfinished, this could be down your dirt-track. The all-acoustic Gourds are based around the striking vocal combination of songwriters Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith - one high and adenoidal, vaguely Appalachian, the other darker, lower and rougher. Together on tracks like "Piss & Moan Blues", these broad accents cut across each other in idiosyncratic harmony while guitars and accordion wheeze and twang drunkenly behind them: I'm reminded of nothing quite so much as The Band in good-time cajun mode, than which there are few higher recommendations.

The feeling persists throughout "Caledonia" - not the Louis Jordan song, but a raucous bawl-along original - and the stumblebum rocker "Jenny Brown", on which Smith sounds a dead ringer for Rick Danko. It's a well-marinated sound, steeped in American musical history and unafraid of committing the odd ethnomusicological forgery, as on the Latin-flavoured "Honduras" and the lovely "Sweet Li'l", whose harmonies, with a touch of a capella kings The Persuasions about them, are appropriately sweeter than elsewhere. In a genre becoming neater by the minute, The Gourds make country music for people who don't iron their jeans. A little gem.

18 WHEELER

Year Zero

Creation CRECD 192

The archetypal Creation band, Scots quartet 18 Wheeler made two albums of American-flavoured retro-pop in typical Teenage Fanclub style, getting nowhere fast before they belatedly discovered dance music and decided to try and incorporate it alongside their high-register harmonies and jangly guitars. The result is Year Zero, which would have been acclaimed as a work of blinding genius had it been released in the Madchester summer of 1990, when Happy Mondays and Stone Roses effected their similar dance/ rock crossover hybrids.

Coming seven years later, it just sounds passe, albeit pretty in parts. "Ballad of Paul Verlaine", for instance, redeems its shaky start by soaring into a lengthy space-rock coda reminiscent of German experimentalists Can; and there are remnants of their Scottish background still audible in tracks like "Blue Eyed Son", which cauterises a lovely Beach Boyish melody with nasty noise, in classic Jesus & Mary Chain manner. But the baggy and trip-hop beats often sound dated, and their production abilities seem ill-equipped to deal with the complex demands of their new sound: the vocals are too often occluded by splashy cymbals, strings and phasing effects, and occasionally they lose the plot completely, most spectacularly with "Retard", a strange Frankenstein exercise in musical spare-part surgery that struggles manfully for life but never really gets up and walks of its own volition.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Twang! A Tribute to Hank Marvin & The Shadows

Pang a PRMDCD25

Scratch a plank-spanker d'un certain age, and you'll find a Hank Marvin fan who graduated from tennis racket and mirror to Fender and fame. Even abroad, deep in the Canadian prairie, the young Neil Young would practise Shads licks endlessly before leaving home to become a folkie; here, he and fellow Winnipegian Randy Bachman (of Bachman-Turner Overdrive fame) turn back the clock with a version of "Spring Is Nearly Here" that doesn't intrude too heavily on the tune's original style.

Would that some of the others involved in this tribute had been as self- effacing; but the A-list trio of "Apache", "FBI" and "Wonderful Land" which opens the album are performed by, respectively, Ritchie Blackmore, Brian May and Tony Iommi, none of whom can contain their native heaviness for more than a chorus. In the case of "Wonderful Land", especially, it's a travesty, the tune's soaring blue skies clouded over with portents of thunder in typical Sabs fashion. Better by far are Mark Knopfler's faithfully sensitive "Atlantis" and Steve Stevens' full-on flamenco version of "The Savage", which has delicacy and grace on its side.

Keith Urban's "Dance On" starts promisingly, too, in something like Ry Cooder style, but swiftly lapses into horrible white-folk reggae, leaving the prize for best interpretation - and this is cause for real celebration, you'll agree - to Peter Green, still able to coax tears from his guitar on a subtle, enchanting version of "Midnight"n

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