Kid Harpoon, Camden Koko, London

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The Independent Culture

Barely a year ago, Kid Harpoon could be seen on the same bill as the then equally unknown Kate Nash, paying homage to English pop's dark lord of surreal whimsy, Syd Barrett. The hunger for unadorned singer-songwriters such as Nash in the 21st century upends all sorts of assumptions about progress.

But Kid Harpoon dwarfed her talent that night. His sense of surreal fancy set him apart from the Nash-Penate-Allen school of social observation. Instead, this prodigy from Chatham in Kent owes more to the untrammelled English grotesquerie of Penate's grandfather, Mervyn Peake.

His new band, The Powers That Be, even with a fill-in guitarist and bassist tonight, transform his songs. "Suicide Grandad" gains a clattering, biscuit-box beat. "Milkmaid" is taken at an emphatic gallop, as Kid Harpoon throatily sings: "Here comes the milkmaid, with her firm shoulders, and the attitude of Caesar", showing the imaginative phrasing, and debt to English folk, which sets him apart from other young singer-songwriters.

"Death of a Rose" sounds almost orchestral, with operatic vocals; "In the Dark" is a big, blowsy piano ballad. But what the music most recalls is a carnival calliope on the edge of town, with Kid Harpoon as the skinny, desperate barker.

Kid claims to have written 200 songs, with inspirations ranging from Rainer Maria Rilke to Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Such industry and ambition is admirable. The mild disappointment tonight is how unformed his lyrical voice remains at this early stage.

It's to his benefit that he has stayed in the shadows, not getting too much exposure too early, as Nash did. If carefully nurtured, he has the seeds of something special.