Justine stretches her luck a little too far

Elastica | The Forum, London Idlewild | The Forum, London Bryan Ferry | Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Read Justine Frischmann's recent interviews and you may notice a pattern. In the first half of each one she chastises Damon Albarn for discussing their private life when he was promoting 13; in the second half she discusses their private life, savaging her ex's character so eagerly she makes Margaret Cook seem a model of dignified reserve. What emerges is that in one respect Albarn and Frischmann were perfect for each other: they both rewrite history. Around the release of their début album, Frischmann was so intent on breaking America that Elastica toured the US constantly. But now she avers that her group is merely a "little punk band". She told Q: "I always wanted to be in the Fall, but Damon always wanted to be in U2 ... He always wanted his band to be huge."

Is that really such a terrible dream for a pop musician to have? Or is Frischmann trying to justify requiring five years to make a not particularly commercial second album? Whatever Britpop's faults - the video for "Country House" springs to mind - one positive aspect was that bands who would have once been labelled as "indie" lost their moral objection to making successful records. Half a decade on, Frischmann's retreat from the frontline smacks of cowardice.

But if she does want to be in a little punk band, she went some way towards fulfilling her ambition on Thursday: her short, sharp songs were scuffed up by the murky sound quality, murky lighting and her own out-of-tune shouting. Elastica were rarely much cop as a live band last time around, but at least the dynamic between Frischmann and Donna Matthews, her fellow guitarist/vocalist, provided a frisson. Matthews quit the band during their lengthy hiatus - only to pop up during tonight's encore - so Frischmann is now the unchallenged focus, in a T-shirt while her bandmates keep to the regulation grey and black. Sadly, with no one to compete with, she doesn't have to make much effort.

Matthews's old job is now shared by the new members of the band. Paul Jones did some impressively mad guitar scrabbling. A woman known only as Mew was slotted behind a keyboard, although her sole responsibility appeared to be to dance badly and shake her head. And another keyboard player lurked in the shadows at the back of the stage. None of these people made the band seem complete. Frischmann has divided and conquered. Or rather, divided and lost.

Idlewild are another little punk band. In their heads, they're living a decade ago, back in the days when indie was indie and radio was radio and never the twain would meet, except on the John Peel show. In our more enlightened age, the Edinburgh four-piece are Top of the Pops veterans whose new LP, 100 Broken Windows, will probably appear in the top 10 today. All power to them: the album is as crisp and crunchy as a bag of Monster Munch, and the superbly named Roddy Woomble has learnt to sing as well as yell. Idlewild could have a great future. For now, though, even the rosiest reviews of 100 Broken Windows can be paraphrased as "They're not just copying the Pixies any more - there's a bit of early REM in there, too."

Any doubts about Idlewild's current greatness are amplified by seeing them in concert. It might be because Rod Jones, the guitarist, wears a tie whose knot hangs a rebellious centimetre or two below the collar of his white shirt, but they remind me of a school band hoping to anger the teachers by playing loudly and jumping up and down. And why try to sound like REM and the Pixies unless you can do it better than REM and the Pixies can?

Bryan Ferry may not seem to fit too well with the bands above, but he and Elastica do share a work rate. Once the most frighteningly prolific man in pop, Ferry eased off in the 1990s. There was one album of covers in 1993, one of originals in 1994 and then nothing until 1999, when he released As Time Goes By. Impatient fans must have considered it an annoyingly appropriate title - especially as, once again, there were no new songs on the album. There weren't any new arrangements, either. Instead, there were 15 absolutely straight jazz-band renditions of 1930s standards.

This seemed a more inspired and glamorous idea in concert than it does on the album. On Tuesday, neither Ferry nor his clothes were any more crumpled than they were in 1972: he'll still be the king of floppy fringes when Hugh Grant's gone bald. On stage with him was a willowy young harpist and a willowy young string quartet, all in black vests and leather trousers. The other musicians, led by Colin Good on grand piano, were male. Funnily enough, they were all in black tie and they weren't at all young and willowy. They were very good, though. There was a mass exodus to the toilets when the ensemble did the sort of swinging Dixieland jazz number you might hear on a Woody Allen soundtrack, but those of us who stayed heard arrangements that glittered like the lights which flecked the backdrop.

It was Ferry who was the weak link. He seemed nervous and gauche, and while his voice was healthier than the wheezing on As Time Goes By, it was still too cold and breathless for Cole Porter and Kurt Weill: his rendition of "September Song" was a close relative of Clive Dunn's "Grandad". He was rejuvenated only when he ripped into the faster, off-kilter art-pop of "Street Life", "Love Is The Drug" and "Let's Stick Together". Much as he might enjoy crooning Rogers and Hart, he can yelp this stuff better. He should record some more of it before time goes by even further.

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