When the Long Blondes turned up two years ago, they couldn't really play, had no record contract, and seemingly survived only thanks to a love-struck NME. Their main asset was their photogenic singer Kate Jackson, who looked like Sheffield's version of Faye Dunaway's Bonnie Parker one minute and home maid Jean Seberg the next. But the first album, Someone to Drive you Home, when it arrived, was a surprisingly accomplished, addictively tuneful, pop culture-saturated set. The upcoming Couples is a clear step on.
"Century," which began their album launch in a South London pub last night, shows their new ambition. It is a love letter from the 21st Century to the 20th, played out over late-70s synths and bass, recalling New Order.
Jackson, demurely but stylishly dressed, growled like a Nice Northern Sioux, with occasional, aerated touches of an ice-cold Debbie Harry. Hanging on or dancing with the mic, nothing looks like a pose. She is dancing casually to her own music on stage as if she's just another girl at a club. When her not naturally strong voice is swamped by her band's bass-heavy, post-punk clang, she could be just that. But on "Lust in the Movies", invoking Warhol's doomed starlet Edie Sedgwick, and widely shrieking for "someone to love", she is in command of her own, dreamy world.
"The Couples" and "Too Clever by Half" see Jackson try on ambiguous, lust-dazed ice maiden roles. But "I Liked the Boys" is truer and funnier as she aggressively dismisses an old lover but flips her wrist like a flustered teen. She could easily be a punk princess, looking more convincing as a serious, commanding star as the night proceeds.
But the Long Blondes charm, like other Sheffield bands from The Human League to Pulp to the Arctic Monkeys rests in retaining something homelier amid the artifices and glamour. Gorgeous as Jackson is, she's a girl's girl too, an approachable touchable figure not a manipulative object of lust.
"Round the Hairpin" is one new song which shows how much better the Long Blondes as a whole have become. Once, by reputation at least, an amiable, amateurish shambles, guitarist Dorian Cox now adds quirky ripples of sound, and the band have found a white funk groove that the Bowie of Young Americans would recognise as a long, lost son.
"Here Comes the Serious Bit", "Guilt" and "I'm Going To Hell" might sound a tortured trio, before "Giddy Stratospheres" big climax but the dips into life's darker side aren't done with real regret. That's just the bit of human grit you can't avoid, when you are escaping for another night into their appealing fantasy world. Not po-faced, pretentious, depressed and, mostly, not great as yet, the Long Blondes are still a band to love.