Music Review: This is the sound of the suburbs

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The Independent Culture
Howard Jones Embassy Rooms London

"IT'S BEEN a very exciting summer for Howard Jones," whooped his manager, from the stage of the Embassy Rooms. "He's just played San Francisco, and now he's here tonight to play for you in London!" Strangely enough, he neglected to mention that his client also did a gig at a pub in Ascot earlier this year. But I saw the banner, slung over some mock-Tudor eaves near the racecourse.

I suppose it might have been a look-alike tribute artist, but it's highly unlikely. Jones isn't an obvious candidate for rehabilitation. He never had the intense fan following that was once enjoyed by most of the current wave of Eighties comeback hopefuls - Culture Club, ABC, the Human League and David Sylvian. Like Thomas Dolby, he was someone who was just there in the charts. I don't remember anybody having a poster of him on their bedroom wall. Jed, his semi-naked mime artist sidekick, was more obviously exciting.

Jed, it seems, is sadly no longer part of the Jones outfit. Maybe he's in Edinburgh, feeling his way out of an invisible glass box, or maybe he went back to plastering - or whatever. But his loss was more than made up for by the kitsch value of Jones's bassist, the pleasantly goofy Nick Beggs - the man who led the post-Limahl Kajagoogoo into the wilderness by giving interviews to Smash Hits about how much he loved the Lord God Jesus. The poodle hair was gone, but the Bee Gee smile remained intact, and he seemed terribly pleased to be there. A small faction of the audience kept yelling, "Come on Beggsy!", but what they wanted him to do was anybody's guess.

Dig out one of Jones's old singles from your record collection, and you may well be disappointed. The sissy synthesised chords, the tinny drum machine and John Shuttleworth production values have dated as badly as Pepsi and Shirley's kneesocks.

Fortunately, however, the Howard Jones of 1999 is a much more substantial figure than his 1983 predecessor. Musically, that is. (Physically, he still remains a smiley little Muppet with Chris de Burgh eyebrows, all boppy and poppy and eager to please.)

The Jones sound has been beefed up since the days when he was supplying tracks for Now That's What I Call Music II. He's imported a brass section, a noisy drummer, a gutsy backing singer called Veronique, and enthusiastic lead guitar. The repertoire contains much more reggae and salsa than mimsy home counties electro-pop, and the ranks of Roland keyboards have been abandoned in favour of a dilapidated Hammond organ covered in stickers. The result is a big, ballsy sound that's far more lush and lairy than the music for which you'll remember him.

It is only the indifferent quality of his songwriting that prevented this gig being anything but pure pleasure. The numbers, even the ones still half-there in your head ("Pearl in a Shell", "What is Love?" "Like to Get to Know You Well") aren't quite good enough, I think, to escape consignment to the dustbin of history - or Ascot, as it's sometimes known.