The Mendoza Line, Academy, Islington, London

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The Independent Culture

Given that singers' egos have sunk many a band, life in The Mendoza Line ought to be pretty tense. The six-piece from Athens, Georgia, now Brooklyn-based, have three lead singers, each very distinct voices and songwriters. If relationships in the band are as strained as those they've explored in their songs for almost 10 years, touring must be a nightmare.

Happily, though, they turn out to be a warm live act, their plentiful inter-band ribbing and nervous between-song laughter proving hugely winning. The unit took their name from a baseball term for a hopeless underachiever, and it's one they strive to live down to by mocking their own perceived ineptitude at every turn. Their level of success seems to bear them out: only about 40 people turned up for this gig, suggesting that their position as alt.country also-rans - albeit critically adored - remains intact.

It would be a shame if that didn't change - there's a rare, lived-in chemistry between the band-members that enables them to slip between peerlessly written country-sad ballads, slacker pop and electric folk with loose, ramshackle charm. Each singer takes it in turns to start, with Shannon McArdle's country coo leading the way on the dreamily Mazzy Star-ish "Throw It In the Fire". Timothy Bracy sticks to that pace with his husky rasp on "Go Shopping", before Peter Hoffman leads "Before I Hit the Wall", the cheerily gung-ho lead single from their new album, Fortune.

There's nothing especially new about their ball game, which involves writing scathing, sometimes witty, sometimes sad lyrics about dysfunctional love and dipping them in honeyed melodies. But while that's a familiar trick, they make light of it with their flawlessly fresh songwriting. From their 2002 album, Lost in Revelry, "Something Dark" sees McArdle sing of jealousy and revenge ("Something dark is racing in my head...") in jaunty, singsong tones. On "What Ever Happened to You", Hoffman blithely reels off a string of lethal put-downs in absurdly catchy couplets over a breezy folk-pop melody. And on "A Damn Good Disguise", Bracy lends his vocal slur - he sounds either terminally disenchanted, sozzled or a suitably extreme mix of both - to a twanging country-rock song that builds with assured insouciance to a rousing close.

Between the heel-kicking hoedown of "Faithful Brother" and the delicate whisper of the Hoffman-led "Let's Not Talk About It", they put a sparkle on any genre they turn to and turn a poorly attended show into something celebratory. Even a fiftysomething couple behind me are all but barn dancing.

"Thank you for bearing witness to our high-wire act," Bracy quips, after McArdle's crystal-clear croon transforms Springsteen's "Tougher than the Rest" into yearning country-pop, played with an easy chug. It's an old tune, but with their precarious balance of singers and styles intact, The Mendoza Line walk it so well.

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