Pop: Lyrics. Who needs them?

MOGWAI ASTORIA LONDON

JANUARY IS the awards season in the music business, and for the past few years the NME has countered that orgy of self-congratulation, the Brits, with its riposte, the Brats. This focuses on younger talent, accompanied by a week of concerts. But this year's seen the series renamed the NME Premier Shows, after the beer company responsible for sponsorship.

The musical policy has been somewhat less adventurous too, virtually all the headliners so far already having had, or been quite capable of, conventional pop success - except for Sunday evening's attraction, Glasgow's Mogwai, four twenty-somethings who wield guitars and eschew vocals, yet still play to a full house.

With their second album due in March, this show provides a chance to debut new material to a loyal audience. The basic Mogwai formula is simple - one guitar starts off dabbling with a mildly discordant riff; the other instruments join in one by one; there's a sudden dramatic take-off that could occur at apparently any point; then it all drifts away again, reaffirming itself occasionally in another rush of power. It may bear a snappy title such as the night's almost ambient opener "May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door", or the extraordinarily brutal "Like Herod".

In the hands of less skilful practitioners of what some label "post rock", this style has already become generic before the wider world has even woken up to it, but Mogwai handle it skilfully, never sounding like a mere rock band that's neglected to pen any lyrics.

If older readers smell a little patchouli oil in all this, they're probably right. After all, this is a band who basically do little more than go from quiet to loud and back again, but they certainly aren't facile in intent or execution. The crowd's response is emphatic.

Mogwai on Top of the Pops - it could yet happen.

Earlier, American Will Oldham, no one's idea of a pop star with his unfeasibly large forehead and bared teeth, sold himself short as his fragile and strangely timeless electric folk music was drowned by Saturday night revellers' chatter.

The intimacy of his records, which as often as not sound like someone struggling to come to terms with the 20th century, let alone the millennium, was lost as his faintly sloppy band crudely rendered such excellent songs as "Madeline-Mary" and the utterly gorgeous number, "One With the Birds". However, his current I See A Darkness album - released under the name Bonnie Prince Billy - remains unreservedly recommended.

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

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