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The Will to Live

Virgin CDVUS 128

Ben Harper seems to be bucking for sainthood on his third album, so devotedly does he pursue his theme of righteousness through songs such as "Jah Work", "I Shall Not Walk Alone" and "I Want to be Ready" (" put on my long white robe"). Such monkish absorption might seem trying, except that Harper has the gift of all great gospellers in being able to make even the simplest and most obvious of sentiments - such as the title-track's "we've got to have the will to live" - sound urgently insightful. Given that his dry, weary husk of a voice lacks both the power of the great gospel shouters and the ecstasy of the great gospel falsettos, this is quite some achievement.

He is helped by the persuasive power of his Weissenborn guitar, an unusual acoustic instrument with a hollow neck which acts as a resonator. Played with a slide, it is capable of a mellow magic quite unlike any other guitar. In Harper's hands, the instrument doesn't so much talk as murmur meditatively. His solo on "I Want to be Ready" is like a drawn-out thread of rumination, and when a dozen tracks of Weissenborn are layered together and run backwards, as on "Roses From My Friends", the effect is bewitchingly serene, a sort of beautiful portent. With an appeal that grows exponentially with each play, The Will to Live looks set to be one of the year's most enchanting albums.


Blood on the Dancefloor

Epic EPC 487500-2

With only five new tracks and a further eight remixes of History material, this barely qualifies as a proper album - but those five tracks still manage to be dismayingly replete with more bile and rancour than the average double-album. Who does he think he is? Lou Reed?

The creeping paranoia that stained History seems even more corrosive here, as Jackson offers thinly veiled chansons clefs concerning his private life, and particularly his relations with women. At least two of the songs - the title-track and "Superfly Sister" - are aimed at some notional "Susie", chastised for her teasing promiscuity. Several of the songs refer directly to the singer's baby, though whether this means his offspring or his lover is debatable; one such, "Ghosts", seems directed at members of his own family. For one who feels so persecuted by tabloid interest, he leaves an awful lot of hostages to fortune with this kind of material, particularly since it breaks scant new ground musically, simply reprising the explosive snare drum, keyboard funk and percussive gasps familiar from his last two or three LPs.

The only significant new piece on the album is "Morphine", a triptych in which the opening and closing slabs of savage, jerky funk sandwich an orchestral mid-section over which Jackson croons "Demerol, Demerol, oh God he's taking Demerol". Weird enough in itself, perhaps, but doubly so given that it is the most genuinely moving bit of singing he has managed for years. Is he trying to tell us something?


Do It Yourself


Proof, if it were needed, that music is far too important to be left to musicians. Take John Squire, former Stone Rose, now lynchpin of The Seahorses - he is undoubtedly a musician; indeed, he never stops playing here, unable to resist embellishing a riff, even when there is not really a song there to begin with. Once hailed as the guitar-hero heir to Johnny Marr, despite lacking the latter's originality, Squire has spent half a decade trying to show how many classic-rock licks he can accumulate, like the lad in the guitar shop practising "Stairway to Heaven".

Squire has set all the musical parameters, and it is ultimately his limitations which cripple Do It Yourself, a leaden bout of generic lad-pop complete with a cast of "rum old slappers" and girls who have had "18 attempts on her best pair of knickers". It's ironic, I suppose, that one who was such an influence on Oasis should wind up imitating them so slavishly, but that's what has happened here. However, where Noel Gallagher has a good ear and a light-fingered way with a melody, Squire seems to have lost whatever melodic aptitude he may once have possessed, flailing away at dismal meat-and-spuds rock with no gravy. Abject stuff.


Angry Samoans

Bulletproof CDVEST 81

The Samoan-American gangsta-rap sextet belatedly follows Ice-T and Public Enemy by trying on for size - that'll be XXXL, I think - the bludgeon of heavy metal. The leaden riffing adds weight to their threats, but frankly, that's the last thing these guys need. Where their debut New Funky Nation gave some indication of the unusual onstage nimbleness of these 20-stone brothers, the grinding guitars here simply serve to bog them down.

The best tracks are those such as "Breakin' Lyfe Sykos", on which the duties are shared as a kind of call-and-response. Not that this makes their message easier to digest: the Boo Yaas may claim the album "chronicles [their] transformation from a life of crime and deviant behaviour to one of dedication to family", but such a transformation is in short supply on Angry Samoans. Unless, that is, you count "Kill for the Family", which espouses family values of a ruthlessness not even countenanced by Thatcherite ideologues.