Pete and the Pirates, Mean Fiddler, London
Modernaire, Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes, London

These devious pirates have nicked the lot: Over-hyped and derivative - surely it can't get any worse than this. Can it?

You clock the coldness of the calendar. You take in the witlessness of the band name. You conclude that the critic must, in desperation at the dearth of gigs, have simply walked into his local pub at random and written about some humble covers act or other.

Au contraire. I've actually ventured up to London – no longer my home – to check out Reading quartet Pete and the Pirates, and discover whether they merit the glowing preview in London's premier listings mag (which talks them up as a multi-faceted, pigeonhole-defying proposition whose influences encompass everything from Krautrock to the Beach Boys).

Now, I recognise that pop criticism is highly subjective, and I appreciate that the mag in question has a vested interest in making the city appear to be the epicentre of the hip universe (even in the first week of January), but Pete and the Pirates fall so short of the hype that it's almost a legal matter. Instead of the brave boundary-breakers I'd read about on the glossy page, I encounter a quartet of interchangeable Shoreditch-souled trilby merchants.

"You're looking sexy tonight," slurs Tommy Sanders, one of the members who isn't wearing Hanna-Barbera specs (shorthand for "intellect" to the credulous spectator, or "myopia" to anyone with functioning ears). If he's right, it's only relative.

The band are roped in behind Jubilee bunting, a gesture whose vestigial significance decreases with every copycat usage, having been used by Sex Pistols, The Good, the Bad & the Queen and Babyshambles in the past year alone, making it at least fourth-hand. Which is one "hand" newer than their music: 50 per cent Peñate jangle, 50 per cent Strokes shudder, 0 per cent inspiration. Pete and the Pirates are what might happen if four clones of Ben, Jack Dee's daughter's feckless boyfriend in Lead Balloon, were to form a band.

The fact that the upstairs bar, where the band below are drowned out by a DJ, is packed to the rafters speaks volumes. (I choose to dash straight back to Kylie night at G-A-Y next door to give myself a cleansing aesthetic power-shower.) Redeeming features? Only if you have a medical phobia of silence. Or, I suppose, as a handy marker for 2008: it can't get any worse than this. Can it?

Reviving the sound of 1940s female vocal groups has proven highly lucrative of late. Pink Martini can headline Hammersmith, the Puppini Sisters are hired to perform at private parties for Russian millionaires. They've both played it fairly straight, and even Christina Aguilera, with the cracking "Candyman", didn't deviate too far from period authenticity.

Enter Modernaire, a two-girl, one-guy trio from Manchester, who are named after, I believe, after a song from Purple Rain (a Dez Dickerson number that appears in the film very briefly and isn't even on the soundtrack album), which impresses me already. Modernaire's singing duo, who go by the names of Cruella De Mill and Chesty La Rue, are highly skilled in the same kind of close harmonies as the aforementioned retro revivalists, but they don't stop there. Third member Oscar Wildstyle provides a synthpop backdrop that shouldn't work, but actually meshes beautifully: the boogie-woogie bugle boy syncopation of the vocals reined in by the robotic rhythms of the machinery.

It's an original sound, or at least a refreshingly original fusion of two superficially incongruous sounds: put simply, Modernaire are the Andrews Sisters meets Ladytron. Indeed, they share the latter's cleverness when it comes to lyrics which bear a second or third listen. (The line "the NHS can't cure my distress" leaps out, as do lurid tales of lost weekends in casinos in Budapest, murder in Monte Carlo, and the like.)

Stagecraft is, currently, somewhat minimal: the accurately named Chesty, jiggling barefoot, obsessively checks her shoulder straps lest she spill out of her black party frock, while Cruella tilts her vintage headdress away from the audience and towards her bandmate, as though they're viewing this show (a party for Really London, tour guides to the capital's cooler corners) as a muckabout rehearsal rather than a public concert. But that will come with time. Modernaire already have something far more important in their hands, namely more than two ideas to rub together.

Maybe 2008 won't be so atrocious after all.

Further browsing "Confessions of a Former Revolutionary" at

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