Incubus, Civic Hall, Wolverhampton <br/>Train, Shepherds Bush Empire<br/>Fosca, The Verge

Where did all the ugly people go?
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The Independent Culture


At the end of the monumentally disappointing Rock Star (moral: "Don't get your head turned by the bright lights and the showbiz lifestyle, never forget where you came from, and stick with your high school sweetheart", and thank you for that, Stephen Herek), Marky Mark goes back to Seattle, cuts his hair to shoulder-length, puts on a lumberjack shirt, starts a band playing gritty-rock-with-a-sensitive-side, and snogs Rachel from Friends in soft focus. In other words, he forms Pearl Jam. And we're meant to think this is A Good Thing?

American rock, oblivious to a decade of shifts in fashion, is stuck in 1992, and still thinks that Stadium Grunge is a neat idea. How else do you explain the rise of Incubus? The first thing you notice is the screaming. Brandon Boyd's surfboy looks see to that. Once the holleration dies down, you hear a straightforward rock band with a passably handsome singer and some catchy tunes, an INXS for the Noughties.

Incubus's visit to the UK takes in a headlining show at Wembley Arena, evidence of a rise which has even mystified their own record company. The whole nu metal industry (incidentally, Incubus, to their credit, say they despises nu metal) is so self-contained, with its own magazines ("Metal Hammer, tonight's sponsors Kerrang!") and TV channel (MTV2) that a band can reach multi-platinum status without leaving a scratch on our culture as a whole.

After incubating for several years, Incubus are merely the latest four-albums-old "new" band to drop off the conveyor belt, this year's already-big-in-America anointed ones. Where's the joy in this UN- airdrop, Oxfam-cast-off culture? This is not an underground, but, as the very name MTV2 implies, a second mainstream. Incubus's "I Wish You Were Here" is a "Wonderwall" for the hoody generation.

At the opening bars, 2,000 flushed-cheeked 14-year-olds squeal, "Oh my God!" and turn their backs on the stage for group hugs. Me? I listen to the pseudo-poetic lyrics ("The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket ... The sky resembles a backlit canopy with holes punched in it ... ") and cringe.

"Nice To Know You", with its arid, flat, joyless harmonies (this is a compliment, by the way) is reminiscent of the mighty Alice In Chains, like much of the two-hour set (give or take an a capella "You've Lost That Loving Feeling"). Boyd is naked to the waist soon enough, glistening with sweat in a Christlike pose. He's alarmingly reminiscent of Val Kilmer's Jim Morrison in The Doors. He casts a nice shadow on the backdrop. The super-troupers glint prettily and violetly off their cymbals, and they don't play a bum note.

Where did all the ugly people go? You just don't get mingers for singers these days. Patrick Monahan of Train is the hybrid progeny of Pierce Brosnan and David Cassidy, and so unfairly handsome that you want to put out his twinkling baby blues with a hot poker. Even the bassist is halfway shaggable.

If you're a thirtysomething ethical banker who's bored with the last R.E.M. and can't wait for the next Semisonic, then Train might be the band for you. You've probably heard "Drops Of Jupiter", the one with the hookline about finding someone "without a permanent scar". Turn on Virgin 1215 at any time, and you'll hear stuff like this (imagine, if you will, an American Stereophonics). There'll be another one along in a minute. They're doubtless decent sorts, doubtless voted Democrat. They're also all too evidently overawed by rock history. You can tell this from their Led Zeppelin cover, and the reverential manner in which the Nashville-shirted Monahan speaks of having recorded at Abbey Road.

Monahan attempts to break the MOR monotony with a little multi-instrumentalism – giving it the full Lisa Simpson on the sax, banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee – as if to prove he's not just a pretty face.

"I want you to want me!" he shouts at the front row, introducing the Cheap Trick classic with which they encore. As if they could want him more.

Dickon Edwards, professional being, online diarist, potential Warhol stunt double and occasional Spearmint member, was once the songwriting, guitar-playing half of Orlando. Now, it won't tell you this in the history books, but Orlando was THE great lost band of the Nineties. An alienated white soul duo who should have followed in the life-changing, obsession-starting lineage of Bowie/Dexys/Smiths/Manics, they instead released one classic album, Passive Soul, then went their separate ways.

Singer Timothy Mark's new project is still under wraps. Dickon, meanwhile, has formed "outpatient pop" group Fosca (named after a Sondheim character, among other things), and stepped up to the microphone. This is problematic. Tim, who had a voice which could melt Antarctica, was born to be a singer. Dickon, who has yet to acquire a tune-carrying bucket and has a speech defect which lends his voice an unfortunate Daffy Duck quality, was not.

But then Dickon (christened Richard Edwards, but pop already had one of those) does have a penchant for making a virtue of his weaknesses. He uses his physical awkwardness, his besuited form throwing jerky, I'm-a-teapot shapes in an "if you haven't got it, flaunt it" kind of way. The fact that Fosca's second album, due out this year on Shinkansen, will be produced by Ian Catt (the unsung fourth member of Saint Etienne) may, on record at least, smooth out his vocal deficiencies.

With an all-female line-up (Dickon aside) of Kate Dornan and Rachel Stevenson (both on synthesizer and backing vocals), and Sheila B (cello), Fosca makes lo-fi music from equipment whose fi is resolutely hi, stealing in turn from The Velvelettes, Bronski Beat and The Strokes.

Dickon's lyrics, eloquent but concise, give the impression of umpteen rewrites, and combine gallows humour (lyrics like "I left my last social circle and I hid for a while/I worked in an undertaker's so I wouldn't have to smile", titles like "Oh Well There's Always Reincarnation") with thinly veiled gay longing. On the current single, he dreams of being "Supine On The Astroturf" with his Latin master, elsewhere he's "watching rugby, for all the wrong reasons" and "admiring the muscle definition of schoolboys across the road".

In many ways, Dickon is a throwback to a less liberated age, pre-Queer As Folk, pre-Attitude, pre-Disco, pre-Joe Orton even, when homosexuality entailed a certain solitude, sorrow and shame. However, his lyrics, like Morrissey's, can be universalised beyond the gay experience, and speak to anyone who has ever felt insulted by the coercive limitations of masculinity. There will always be those, though, who will not forgive Fosca for not being Orlando, and I think I may be one.

Incubus: Arena, National Ice Centre, Nottingham (0115 853 3000)