The Flaming Lips, Royal Albert Hall, London <br/> Charlotte Church, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London <br/> The Cardigans, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Santa, have you met Wonder Woman?
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The Independent Culture

'Enthusiasm can save the world, really it can." If those words were spoken by almost anyone other than Wayne Coyne, your lips would be curling into a sneer before he'd even reached the full stop. The fact is, though, that The Flaming Lips can lift the human spirit, and have you believing in its power to change things for the better, more convincingly than almost anyone else alive.

If you've been to a Flaming Lips show in the last five years, you'll know what to expect: a kids' party for grown-ups, involving a huge transparent sphere, inside which Coyne rolls out over the heads of the audience, troupes of dancing Santas and Aliens, one Captain America, one Wonder Woman, one skeleton, much fake blood, Manga animation, and a never-ending supply of giant balloons.

It's the balloons, in particular, which embody the Lips philosophy. Coyne asks us to see if we can get one of them all the way to the top of the Albert Hall's concentric wedding-cake tiers. The ensuing scenes of balloon-battingbecome so gripping (and infuriatingly frustrating) that, when he plays an entire song on a child's toy that makes animal noises, nobody's paying attention.

Indeed, with a couple of exceptions - the tear-jerkingly beautiful "Do You Realize?", and a pertinent cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs", complete with footage of Iraq bloodshed which is so intense you forget to laugh at Ozzy's clunky non-rhymes - the balloon game dominates the rest of the show. Coyne's involve-the-audience gamble has backfired.

Or has it? The themes it raises - co-operative endeavour, the tug-of-war between the collective and the individual, and the way that it only takes one idiot to ruin everything - are the same ones The Flaming Lips have investigated over their last three albums. One way or another, Coyne's made his point.

If it's lazy and dangerous to place too much faith in national stereotypes, then it's surely ludicrous to read too much into hair colours. However, in the case of The Cardigans, it's all too tempting.

Scandinavians, conventional wisdom has it, are melancholy sorts, prone to suicidal thoughts. The Cardigans have gone from a frothy, blonde-fronted pop act to serious brunettes, notably with the autumnal album Long Gone Before Dawn. It was all starting to fit together.

Suddenly, they tore up the script and started again. If the buzz around them hadn't died away years previously, 2005's Super Extra Gravity would have been one of the most talked-about releases of the year.

Tonight, the single "I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer" is a sexed-up Barbara Woodhouse routine (imagine hard), with Nina Persson, in corset, spray-on jeans, kinky boots and severe scraped-back hair, instructing "sit... good dog... bad dog..."

She's unexpectedly funny, too. Her humour helps the long crawl through the mellow material towards "My Favourite Game" - the song everyone's really here for - fly by, and when she informs us - apropos of nothing - that "I sucked at gymnastics at school", at least half the Shepherd's Bush Empire thinks very bad thoughts indeed. Speaking of which...

"On 21st February 2002, the editors of Britain's tabloid newspapers breathed a sigh of relief as the Welsh warbler finally turned 16. Overnight, their feelings towards Charlotte changed from ones of paternal interest in her career to ones of priapic, salivating lust over her arse and tits." This observation from the latest Viz, while funny, isn't 100-per-cent accurate: The Star famously published a leering photo of the then-underage Ms Church's cleavage on the same page as a witch hunt against some paedophile or other.

Either way, perceptions of Charlotte Church have shifted in many ways over the last few years. The slightly brattish child diva has gone through very public growing pains to become the embodiment of good-time, live-now-diet-later womanhood, and become something of a national Forces Sweetheart in the process.

That's not to say that her music is to everyone's taste. Much of tonight's show has something of the karaoke hen party about it, with covers of Gloria Estefan, Kate Bush and En Vogue songs dotted among her own singles (although, unlike the average hen-nighter, the girl can sing). And she isn't as glam as one might have hoped: with her hair in a grown-out perm, and wearing a kimono over baggy jeans and sensible flatties, you can believe her when she says "I don't get out of the house much".

But this normality (not to be confused with hideous Michelle McManus dullness) is, of course, key to her appeal. She's a proper Cardiff girl who happens to be a millionairess, and the way she pronounces the word "lush" is worth the trip on its own. If you don't love Charlotte Church, you don't love humanity.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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