Pop: Cerys the menace

Live: CATATONIA ASSEMBLY ROOMS DERBY
WITH A bottle of wine in her hand and a withering sneer on her face, Cerys Matthews had the crowd bowing in reverence and throwing flowers at her feet on the first leg of their tour. As they screamed variations on her name - Crease, Cerise, Cress - she barked: "How can you listen with all that shouting?" They responded by yelling louder, willing her to tell them off again.

Matthews is the primary force behind Catatonia and comes equipped with a hefty stage presence. She has cited Judy Garland as her musical hero and sells herself as the laddish hippie chick with an unlimited repertoire of damning soundbites. She also trades on her Celtic vowel sounds and crackling vocals, though Wednesday's show proved that she can just as easily switch on an angelic voice when required for wistful numbers.

During the hit single "Mulder and Scully", Matthews asked the crowd to help her along, claiming that she had "problems with the high notes", but we were not to be deceived. Despite her throaty, 40-a-day vocals, Matthews rose beatifically above each note before demolishing them with larynx-lacerating force.

Memories of Matthews' remarkable voice will not quite obliterate the fundamental weaknesses in Catatonia's new songs. Previous material leaned heavily on zeitgeisty references which, combined with their generic indie pop, provided them with only fleeting appeal.

New songs revealed more similar sing-a-long melodies and a profusion of cultural cliches, from karaoke to feng shui. A new song, "Storm The Palace", echoed the insurrectionist sentiments of "I Am The Mob", while the "make hay, not war" maxim in "Dead From the Waist Down" smacked of crass student sloganeering.

Fortunately, Matthews' magnetism outweighs the occasional crassness of Catatonia's songs. But with such a combination the band will - to borrow the title of their new album - find themselves "Equally Cursed and Blessed".

Catatonia play the Octagon, Sheffield tonight, and Barrowlands, Glasgow on Sunday 14 March; the tour continues to 24 March.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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