Funky, relaxed, classy - but where's the magic?

Morcheeba | Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
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The Independent Culture

At the end of "Shallow End", Morcheeba's disco mirrorball of a new single, the group segued into Anita Ward's classic, "Ring My Bell". And at the end of that, Skye Edwards turned to her bandmates with a grin. "We're gonna get such a bad review for that," giggled the singer. "We're supposed to be miserable!" "Moody," added Morcheeba's DJ and lyricist, Paul Godfrey. "We're meant to be moody."

At the end of "Shallow End", Morcheeba's disco mirrorball of a new single, the group segued into Anita Ward's classic, "Ring My Bell". And at the end of that, Skye Edwards turned to her bandmates with a grin. "We're gonna get such a bad review for that," giggled the singer. "We're supposed to be miserable!" "Moody," added Morcheeba's DJ and lyricist, Paul Godfrey. "We're meant to be moody."

Funnily enough, it didn't seem as if either of them was too upset by the prospect of a bad review. And why should they have been? They had a beautiful singer in a backless vest who snaked her arms with sexy grace around her head. They had a DJ and a guitarist, Paul Godfrey and his brother Ross, who were impeccable. And besides the usual rock band rhythm section, the trio were augmented by two enthusiastic backing singers, a soulfully tootling brass section, a string section whose sleek arrangements would have done the Bee Gees proud in 1978, and a star-spangled backdrop. Like Morcheeba's three albums, the show was a perfect display of classy, sophisticated but accessible pop. It was the first of three sold-out nights at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, and the audience was having a ball. What more could anyone ask for?

Well, something. Morcheeba need more of some magical ingredient or other if they're ever to lose the label of "dinner party music" - a label which has been glued to them ever since they peeled off the "trip-hop" one - but their sound is so rich and consistent that it's hard to say what that magical ingredient might be. If anything, it's a little too consistent. 1996's Who Can You Trust, as its name suggests, has ominous undercurrents. 1998's Big Calm, as its name suggests, is brighter and more relaxed. And this year's Fragments of Freedom, as its name suggests, lifts the tempo even higher to go for full-on funk. Along the way, Morcheeba have picked up Indian rhythms, dub basslines, bluesy slide guitar and a dozen other elements. We should be congratulating them on their eclecticism. But somehow, it doesn't matter which of their songs they play or, indeed, whether they cover Donovan's "Season of the Witch", as they did on Thursday: the nice, smooth, chill-out mood is barely altered.

There were moments during the evening when Morcheeba pushed the envelope from a pleasant A4 to an excellent A3. At one extreme, "Rome Wasn't Built In a Day" was a big, brassy, sequinned celebration; and at the other, a stripped down, acoustic "Fear And Love" was heart-meltingly humane. Also, by the encore, Edwards' sweetly sheepish efforts to engage the audience were enough to send everyone home smiling.

It's just a shame that the Godfreys can't seem to shake their adherence to mellow, two or three-chord grooves, and that Edwards' vocals, as warm and velvety as cappuccino foam, have such a narrow range of both notes and emotions. Whatever the lyric, she sounds as if she's just had a massage. The Skye, you might say, is the limit. Morcheeba's problem, then, is not that they're miserable or moody, or that they're happy, grumpy or bashful. The problem is that it's impossible to tell which of the above they're meant to be.

In contrast to Morcheeba's well-oiled pop machine, their support act, Departure Lounge, looked and sounded like a gang of buskers. But if you resisted the temptation to toss them a 20p piece and walk away, muttering, "Get a job, you scruffs" under your breath, you'd notice that their lanky singer, Tim Keegan, follows in the very British tradition of Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker and Ian Broudie. His songs are as unassumingly soothing as a cup of tea on a rainy day. On "Everything We Need", he sings: "If our garden is overgrown / That's because we've got better things to do / And if your bathtub is overflowing / It means I'm in there, too / Yeah, that's me with the mask and snorkel." Truly, he fears no soppiness.

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