POP: Hugh Cornwell; Dingwalls, London

Thursday was the one-time Strangler-king's birthday, and the select crowd welcomed Mr Cornwell with a chorus of congratulation - "happy birthday, dear Hyooo-ugh..." This, of course, he barely acknowledged, since what is an ex-Strangler for if not to evince disgust at such tawdriness? But here's the difference: though he played the set wearing a disaffected frown, the music Cornwell makes these days retains little of the cute, brute thuggery of yore; in his old age (he's 48) he's replaced it with pop craftsmanship and wry lyrics about the way men and women tease and interact.

This would have been anathema back when the Stranglers charmed us all with "Bring on the Nubiles", "Peaches" (which only got airplay once the word "clitoris" was replaced with "bikini") and "Nice 'n' Sleazy" (to which the band encouraged girls to strip on-stage at gigs). The album that Hugh is plugging, Guilty, is a devilish little piece, full of the swirly keyboards and souped-up psychedelic guitars that were always his tattoo, but tongue-in-cheek and highy melodic, showing he's breathing a deal more freely since he left the dregs of the Stragglers (sic) to bash away on the nostalgia merry-go-round.

Tonight, though, something let him down, though not till halfway through the show. The band play the first couple of numbers in darkness. They're wearing teeny torches attached to bifocal frames, so all you see are coyote- eyed hulks shifting in the shadows - think the pit-dwelling Morlocks from HG Wells's Time Machine. This adds a certain frisson, particularly because "Long Dead Train" kicks in with a goth-style harpsichord fantasia. When the lights flick up, the number's Duane Eddy-style locomotion appears to be provided by Tom Jones on chunky bass and a stripling Jean-Paul Gaultier on chiming rhythm guitar - stylish.

Cornwell wears a soigne black suit, a white shirt and a deeply laconic attitude, which neatly fits "Five Miles High", a story about flying to see a lover which is full of gruff suggestions about what they'll do when they meet - sexual anticipation far headier than being high on something else.

Cornwell's world-weary delivery has been likened to Lou Reed's, which may be why he does "Venus in Furs" - but, boy, is that ill-advised, and here's where things nosedive. Though his guitar break is a work of virtuoso hysteria, the intonation doesn't cut it, and it's no good sounding embarrassed about S&M. A brace of new songs are worse: "The Big Sleep", about Bob Mitchum, is slow, logy, cowboy-country and agony ("And now you're gone, it's really not so bad / We were there with you, Bob, so were my mum and dad"). Though he rescues himself with the upbeat and gloriously Freudian "Snapper" (about how eating fish is so good, you get ratty when it's not available) and the light-hearted "Hot Head" (about a girl so wild she can almost fly), the final half-hour is murder, indulged with unrecorded stuff that feels unfinished - dull cod-punk or kitsch rock 'n' roll. Kept short, bitter-sweet and pithy, like the album, this would have worked. As it was, you left feeling strangulation was too good for him.

Glyn Brown

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