Pop: Heaven knows they're miserable now

BLACK BOX RECORDER DINGWALLS, LONDON

black box Recorder comprises a female singer and two male musicians, though you won't mistake them for Peter, Paul & Mary, not even on a foggy day. The band is the latest outlet for the morbid talents of the Auteurs' singer/songwriter Luke Haines. His last project, Baader Meinhof, released a concept album about 1970s German terrorism that sold about eight copies, half of them as the desperate third choice in that 3 for pounds 21 deal at HMV.

Black Box Recorder's album of sad, sore pop songs, England's Made Me, might sell better, but the glass clearly remains half-empty in Haines' world. Typical of the cruelly comic lyrics that he and his fellow guitarist John Moore have written for their vocalist Sarah Nixey is the song "Child Psychology", which Haines introduced at their debut show as having "the best chorus ever written in the history of pop music". It goes "Life is unfair" before this consolatory sentiment is soured with the advice "Kill yourself or get over it". It's sure to go down a storm in Ibiza.

At any point during Monday's gig, you could have glanced at one of the video screens and caught a selection of images chosen by the band as representative of English life. There was Dennis Nielsen, Myra Hindley and Louise Woodward; there was Gazza and Chris Evans. There was an excerpt from the vintage game show Mr and Mrs, slowed down so that its frivolity was weirdly distorted, then inter-cut with shots of Fred and Rosemary West. You could put this down to rock star shock tactics if the suggestion of gothic horror lurking beneath apparent normality were not crucial to the bands' music. Queasy listening. But, in a nice reflection of that theme, tales of dangerously dysfunctional family life are coated in pristine arrangements: delicately caressed guitars, chiming xylophones, a whoosh of strings.

The songs are indebted to the spirit of The Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society" and The Specials' "Ghost Town". There's a word for it: seething. The bands' key weapons are simplicity and understatement, and when they traded those in for the snarling glam assault of two new numbers, "Brutality" and "Lord Lucan is Missing", the enigmatic magic was dispelled.

Elsewhere, the band struck a perfect balance between menace and comedy in their choice of cover versions - a prowl through "Seasons in the Sun" where Nixey's deadpan vocals gave the maudlin overtones of Jacques Brel's writing short shrift; and a numb, ghostly take on Althea and Donna's "Up Town Top Ranking" which can only be likened to hearing Leonard Cohen covering "Agadoo". Yes, that creepy. Let the bad times roll.

Ryan Gilbey

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