Starsailor, Apollo, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

The music press has bitterly dismissed Starsailor's second album, Silence Is Easy. Once the band were seen as saviours, but it's now as if they are a drunken bet that didn't pay off, and it's easier to put down the horse than to take the blame.

Not that Starsailor have anything to complain about; a million sales of their debut Love Is Here later, and with a fan base far less fickle than the press, there's genuine excitement at this, their first gig in their native North-west for a year. Massed claps turn to roars as, from the fog-bank of dry ice, the band are announced. Then singer James Walsh is standing before blinding lights, as Starsailor blast into "Sharkfood", their prophetic new song about the music business spitting them out.

It's a more dramatic start than most indie bands manage; as with their ill-starred employment of Phil Spector, the careful use of effects throughout the night shows that Starsailor are thinking big. And yet, Walsh's presence on stage confirms the critics' doubts, and reveals his own. After "Sharkfood", he tells the crowd to cheer, not trusting the reaction he's already had, and turns the lights on them as he takes their picture. Like his frequent stories of how far they've come since they were in this theatre's audience, Walsh is a mixture of proud star and fan, embarrassed to be on-stage when we're not. You can see the confusion in his smart-casual, unexceptional clothes, and hear it in Starsailor's songs. As their old habit of back-projecting heroes like Tim Buckley during "Good Souls" suggests, they are more comfortable worshipping music than being worshipped themselves.

They also know what ambition sounds like more than what it means, as when they play "Four to the Floor" with enough searchlights to fend off the US Air Force, several orchestras of synthesised strings, and a thundering beat. Impact with Starsailor isn't a matter of depth but force of numbers; mystery is aimed at, but only scale results.

Still, they are better than on record, as when "Lullaby" becomes a thick ball of sound, guitars sticking out like shards. By "Born Again", Walsh's voice, usually uniformly histrionic, seems too to be more committed, breathy with effort, as if the song's theme of spiritual need is reaching him. Then he suddenly drops his guitar with a clang, and really sings Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire", throwing his voice into it for a few lost seconds, before returning to timid technique. Suddenly inspired, Starsailor throw the kitchen sink at "Tie Up My Hands"; a pint glass hits the stage to the sound of Walsh yodelling, as the home crowd cheer. By the end, they've played their hearts out. But they rarely touched mine.