Maroon 5, Apollo, Manchester <br/> !!!, Astoria, London

So nice. So catchy. So what?
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes, you don't need a critic. What you need is a scientist. There are whole academic tomes to be written by musicologists - and for all I know, it's already been done - on the subject of catchiness, the anatomy of an earworm. Could it be syncopation, or the trick of the melody remaining the same while the underlying chords change, or the way that, in certain songs, each line or bar anticipates the one which follows, so you can't sing one without singing the next? I'm way out of my depth.

Sometimes, you don't need a critic. What you need is a scientist. There are whole academic tomes to be written by musicologists - and for all I know, it's already been done - on the subject of catchiness, the anatomy of an earworm. Could it be syncopation, or the trick of the melody remaining the same while the underlying chords change, or the way that, in certain songs, each line or bar anticipates the one which follows, so you can't sing one without singing the next? I'm way out of my depth.

However it works, the ubiquitous "This Love" by Maroon 5 is possibly the catchiest thing I've heard since I found myself singing "Two Princes" by The Spin Doctors on the 134 bus 10 years ago. This isn't to say that I like it, necessarily - after all, mumps is catchy too - but, as a busy and bubbling Apollo attests, plenty of people evidently do. So, this is where the straight people go now for their rock kicks. Really straight people, with no kinks or creases to iron out. Girls in spaghetti straps, boys in untucked shirts: Maroon 5 fans look like they ought to be having fights in fairgrounds and choking in puddles of alcopop.

It figures. Maroon 5 are decidedly straight themselves: nice, clean, scrubbed American college boys (well, apart from the weird Amish-looking dude on keyboards who has his own agenda going on), preppy in the old sense, still growing their hair out for the first time after flying mommy and daddy's nest.

Sometimes it's a useful and instructive exercise when contemplating a modern band to work out which group they would have been, back in the day. It takes a couple of partial matches - Climie Fisher, Huey Lewis and the News - until I nail it: Go West. That's it. There's the same utterly albino, blanched blackness of the music, the same banal, unobtrusive hunkiness of the singer. Well, when I say "hunky"... is M5 singer Adam Levine really as much of a dreamboat as the screams from the predominantly female crowd - and for that matter the supermodel girlfriend (Kelly McGee) - would suggest? From this distance, looking at his slightly runty face, and the sooty stubble disguising his pointy little chin, I can't quite see it. But does this, or his weak voice (with its karaoke-phoney vibrato), or his band's weedy white soul sound (not unlike Jamiroquai) cramp his style? Not even slightly, if the simian hip-thrust on the line "keep her coming every night" is any indication.

Maroon 5 are the epitome of pretty-vacant, a band with nothing to communicate beyond "I am great. You love me. I could have any one of you..." Their complete absence of emotion is perfectly mirrored in this critic: I can't even be bothered to dislike them.

NNNRGH! NNNRGH! NNNRGH! Well, that's how I say it. When the band whose name is a trio of exclamation marks first emerged, they advised us to pronounce it "chk chk chk", or any other three repetitive sounds. One girl in the Astoria crowd, unwisely handed the microphone by singer Nic Offer, opts for "cunt cunt cunt".

!!! are probably, on paper at least, the most radical of New York's nouveau punk-funkers. You know the messed-up noise overload at the end of an average DFA production? !!! put that at the start. The whole song is the breakdown. They're certainly the loosest. Rather than a cohesive unit, the musicians seem to be toiling in isolation, their contributions combining like noises from separate cages in the same zoo. Distinct entities, yet anonymous: during a half-hearted stage invasion, the bassist (who has lain down his instrument) is mistaken for an intruder and almost ejected.

Somewhat unpredictably, this freeform approach works better on CD than in concert. Well, tonight at least. In a small club, !!! would be overpowering. In a half-empty Astoria (someone's overestimated their pulling power, and upstairs is closed), they aren't.

Tracks like "Feelgood Hit of the Fall" and "Pardon My Freedom" offer an odyssey through indie-dance history (one songs starts like "Milkshake" and ends like "Step On"), and even the fractal projections are very 1992. "Me and Giuliani Down By the School Yard (A True Story)", which compares party-pooping NYC mayor Rudolph to the dance-hating headmaster in Footloose, is their "Stairway to Heaven", "A Forest" or "Freebird": a song whose epic length is a standing in-joke. The recorded version clocks in at nine minutes, tonight I time it at over 16.

Boredom threatens, but Offer, a whirl of Miles Hunt hair, doesn't lack for energy, and, in a PJ Proby-like buttock-baring incident, splits his trousers after one song. The show is stolen, however, by drummer John Pugh, whose acrobatic leaps and Prince falsetto on "Shit Scheisse" mark him out as a better frontman than the frontman.

"It doesn't help," Offer concedes, "that I have the ugliest ass in all of America." Hmm hmm hmm.

!!!: Manchester Uni (0161 832 1111), tonight; Rescue Rooms, Nottingham (0115 958 8484), Mon

s.price@independent.co.uk

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