Epitaph - 2005 - 47 minutes

Sage Francis is part of the hip-hop underground, a strange place where atonal noises and solemn declarations often get the better of melody, humour and rhythm.

Fortunately, ex-radio presenter Francis has a bit more about him than your typical frowning underground MC.

'A Healthy Distrust' showcases a keen intelligence engaging with the world around him, without sacrificing the enjoyment factor of his music in the process.

The hilarious 'Gunz Yo!' takes an openly amused look at the phallic undertones of gangsta rap's obsession with weaponry, while there's a surprise appearance from Will Oldham on the moody 'Sea Lion', which plays like a hip-hop/folkie cover version of Radiohead's 'Street Spirit'.

The standard of delivery and the quality of the wordplay on offer is matched by some fine production work from Sixtoo and Dangermouse (among others) and even the obligatory skit (a rampagingly abusive voicemail message left on Francis' answering machine) comes complete with a lush, chiming breakbeat.

The overall sound of 'A Healthy Distrust' draws strongly on the world of folk and rock, with guitars (both samples and live playing) scattered liberally throughout the mix. Francis himself is on good form as he rails against homophobes, Clear Channel and the bankrupt state of commercial rap music, without sounding too much like a po-faced preacher.

It's a well-weighted record - unusual without being obscure, passionate without being over-polemical. And not many hip-hop albums end with a tribute to Johnny Cash.

Luke McManus

Tracklisting: The Buzz Kill - Sea Lion - Gunz Yo! - Escape Artist - Product Placement - Voice Mail Bomb Threat - Dance Monkey - Sun Vs Moon - Agony in Her Body - Crumble - Ground Control - Lie Detector Test - Bridle - Slow Down Gandhi - Jah Didn't Kill Johnny