Pop: Songs for twisted lovers

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The Independent Culture
3 Colours Red

Electric Ballroom, London

Jimi Tenor

Improv, London

Whale

Improv, London

If you've read the tabloids this week, you'll know that Tony Blair will soon be forcing us not only to swap our pounds for Euros but also - according to unconfirmed reports - to swap our medium sliced loaves for unpronounceable lumps of dough with tomatoes in them. And who can blame him? He is, after all, Britain's first rock'n'roll prime minister, and for the first time ever Europe is now a rock'n'roll place to be. Last year, the continent's record sales caught up with those of the United States, meaning that British bands may soon stop banging on about "breaking America" and concentrate on breaking Europe instead. More significantly, the late 1990s have seen an explosion of European pop that is contemporary, challenging and cool. Snigger no more, Terry Wogan. Where once there were nul points, now there are the Cardigans, Daft Punk, Air and Aqua. And if you're not convinced, this week's concert reviews pitch our plucky British lads against the Europeans.

Representing the monochrome forces of British conservatism - despite being named after a Kieslowski film - we have . Their show on Wednesday began with Pete Vuckovic (no, really, they are British) singing "Song On Your Radio", a misguidedly optimistic title if ever there was one. But perhaps "singing" isn't the word. Vuckovic manages to be out of tune when there is no actual tune to be out of. His songs are steam rollers: heavy, noisy, chugging, incapable of sudden changes of direction. And they all sound the same. Before "Sixty Mile Smile", he yells: "You'll know this one!" Yeah, because we've heard it six times tonight already.

With the release of their second album, Revolt (Creation), prove that they do more than just copy old punk bands. They copy old heavy metal bands, too. Still, their music is perfectly competent, and it's obvious that the band believe in what they're doing (they're certainly not in it for the money). Given the US's tolerance for archaic punk rock, 's best bet would be to tour America for six months. And I'm not just saying that to get them out of the country.

And so to the Europeans. First up is Jimi Tenor, a Finnish Joe 90 lookalike and a wizard of the analogue synth. His new album, Organism (Warp), is almost unclassifiable, but my best effort would be something like "postmodern lounge noir". Tenor takes the ingredients of kitsch cocktail music - relaxed, funky rhythms, lazy jazz sax - and gives them a disturbing twist: a creepy keyboard line, a funereal choir, a threatening whisper, or an implacable techno beat. This is uneasy easy listening: lounge music for a haunted house. Even Tenor's romantic lyrics - "My mind is an open book for you, honey, you can read me as you wish" - would have any sane woman kicking him in the shins and running to the nearest police station.

That's the first thing about European pop, then. It's bizarre. Mind you, it's always been bizarre, so either its found a new confidence in its bizarreness, or we British have grown more liberal in our listening habits. Whatever the reason, today's Euro-oddities make for music that is refreshingly defiant of traditional genres.

The next point to note about the new wave of European pop is that its recorded versions bear little resemblance to its live versions. On Thursday, Tenor wasn't the ominous Mike-Flowers-meets-Massive-Attack of his albums. He was closer to Liberace-meets-Dr-John.

Both the musical arrangements and the stage show emphasise the tongue- in-cheek retro-grooviness of Tenor's repertoire. He takes the stage in a carnival head-dress of pink and orange gauze, trailing a 10-foot-long sequinned bridal train. He sits at his keyboards, next to a sheet painted as - apparently - a Finnish landscape, and brightens up his songs with a DJ, a guitarist and a besuited three-man brass section. Halfway through, a woman in a kimono mini-dress brings them a glass of champagne each. Tenor responds by balancing a keyboard on his head. Come to think of it, maybe his live incarnation is just as disturbing as his recorded one.

Also representing Europe is Sweden's Whale, who look as much like a continental indie band as is humanly possible. The musicians are a pasty conglomeration of moustaches, faded jeans, bowling shoes, Jarvis specs and worse-than- Jarvis hair. (Are they deliberately geeky? Because if you're Swedish already, that's a risky tactic.) Then there's the singer, Cia Sorro, a sex kitten to rival Brigitte Bardot, except with brown (and purple and blue) hair. From the Sugarcubes to the Cardigans to Moa to - yes - Aqua, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the more exotically beautiful the chanteuse in a Northern European band is, the more nerdish and unfashionable her male colleagues will be.

Whale are also typically European in that they sound so ... untypical. The Whale music on last year's superb album, All Disco Dance Must End in Broken Bones (Hut), is a dreamy vista of hip-hop, gracious electronica and snowflake pop, like a livelier Morcheeba. But in concert, Whale are a different beast. They are rock leviathans. They rampage around the stage, slamming down 10 ton guitar riffs, tripping over each other and dedicating a song "to the English infra-structure". Vocals overlap and synthesisers squiggle madly. It's spiky, ramshackle garage rock: a stock car to 's steamroller. And it's as riotously, shamelessly entertaining as any gig I can remember. Party on, Whale.

If I'd paid seven pounds for my ticket I might have been aggrieved by a set lasting just 40 minutes - that's pounds 1 a song (or 1.45 Euros). As it was, I got in for free and was home in time for Seinfeld, so I can't complain. Whale in concert and Whale on their album are currently two of my favourite bands. If they were British, I can guarantee they'd have been on a dozen magazine covers by now. Well, Sorro would have been, anyway. I'm not so sure about the others.

: Exeter Phoenix (01392 259130), Mon; Bristol Univ (0117 929 9008), Tues; Brighton East Wing (01273 202881), Sat; Man Univ (0161 832 1111) Sat; and touring.

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