Pop: Still hip, still gutsy, still clever and still blonde

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The Independent Culture

Newcastle City Hall

Natalie Imbruglia

Reading Rivermead

Apart from rap reworkings of Bee Gees songs, pop music in the Nineties will be remembered primarily for the reunions. Every few months for the past decade, the members of a legendary band have patched up their differences, told lots of interviewers that they never felt the group had fulfilled its potential, then fallen out again. And as a music critic, my part in this process has been to grumble each time about how pitiful it is when icons travesty themselves.

Deep down, though, I don't see what's wrong with reunions. OK, so the musicians are after some easy money, but why do you think they got together in the first place? And OK, they're never going to have the same impact as they did the first time around, but how could they? Times change. If you go to a school reunion, you don't end up sitting through double French and sneaking behind the gym hall for a cigarette.

Purists may shudder, but I'm happy to have seen the Velvet Underground, Television and the Sex Pistols return from the grave. And, this week, I was happy to see barrel through their many hits at such a breathless pace that the crowd never stopped dancing, and Deborah Harry's joke about leaving the stage to put new batteries in her pacemaker had a worrying ring of plausibility.

scored nine Top Five hits in the UK, including five number ones, before they broke up in 1982. Now, the four main members - Harry, Chris Stein, Jimmy Destri and Clem Burke - have resumed trading, joined by a new bassist, a second guitarist, and, on some songs, an extra keyboard player. And they're sounding excellent, notwithstanding the lamentable cleaning up of their trashy guitar sound. It's the first law of rock reunions: if you're a band from the Sixties or Seventies who reform in the Nineties, your music's going to sound a bit Eighties.

There's no disguising the fact that aren't as young as they used to be. During the instrumental break in "Atomic", Jimmy Destri played the synth while kneeling on the stage with a cigarette in his mouth. Harry, whose face has been on more posters than Blu-Tack, is now 53, and a T- shirt and a tight, knee-length skirt are no longer the wisest outfit for her. More sensibly, the men in the band have realised that the way to hide their middle-aged spread is to stick to the black suits they always wore, except for a stern-looking Chris Stein, who has chosen grey to match his hair.

But age cannot wither . If they're not as young as they used to be, one of the keys to their success was that they never used to be very young in the first place. Harry was an unbelievable 33 before the group had any hits. So while a Sex Pistols reunion requires 40-year-olds to fake the furious alienation of their acne-ridden teenage selves, 's oeuvre was always made up of mature, knowing art-rock with a generous dose of cabaret. The group started life by kidnapping the fresh-faced girl-group cooing of the Sixties and dragging it round the grimy streets of New York, and they ended up making some of the most bizarre and ambitious disco-punk-reggae-jazz ever to grace the charts. Don't forget that "Denis" has a verse in French for no apparent reason, and one of the earliest examples of rapping on a pop single consisted of Harry rambling on about a car- eating alien in "Rapture". Despite their reputation for ultra-cool urban pop, then, have always dealt in postmodern pastiche. So on Tuesday, the admittedly frightening sight of Harry hamming up her performance, tottering on her heels, and belting out the choruses with the brassy voice of a show-stopping vaudeville dame was somehow true to the spirit.

Clem Burke has aged best. On 's album covers, Burke is the one who looks like Rodney Bewes from The Likely Lads. Now, sustained by fruit, tofu and treadmill work-outs, he is the most hyperactive yet disciplined drummer I've ever seen. He starts "Dreaming" with a fearsome drum roll, and then keeps it going for the rest of the song. And he still has enough energy to jump on top of the bass drum at the end, spinning one drum stick between his fingers and tossing the other in the air.

What's more astonishing is that 's new songs, due for release on an album in February, are almost as clever and as deranged as the old ones. "Maria" in particular deserves its place on a "Best of " compilation. If only Harry would invest in a trouser suit and Stein and Destri would keep their jackets on, I'd have no reunion city blues at all.

Natalie Imbruglia would love to have some of Harry's credibility, but, alas, it will always be beyond her. Problem one: her mis-spent youth. At the age when the Seventies pop babe was a Playboy bunny, a Warhol hanger-on, and a CBGB habitue, the Nineties pop babe was a squeaky-clean soap star. Problem two is that Imbruglia's brand of gorgeousness is so much less idiosyncratic than Harry's. Imbruglia is as perfectly proportioned as a shop-window dummy. Like Bush's Gavin Rossdale, she's attractive in such an expensively styled, self-conscious way that whenever she says she's a tortured artiste you have to laugh in her beautiful face. Of course, as in Rossdale's case, if her songs were at all original, her looks wouldn't be an issue. That's problem three.

In concert, Imbruglia's music sounds just like it does on her 5.5 million- selling album, Left of the Middle (RCA). And on Left of the Middle, her music sounds just like Alanis Morissette and Portishead do on their albums. She's Xeroxed their styles in an effort to get some alternative, un-Kylie- ish credibility, but ever since 1995 any white female who has wanted to be a pop star has had the same idea. Left of the middle? Not any more.

Imbruglia may prefer not to be reminded of Neighbours, but she still makes her living by acting, only now she's playing the role of an alternative rocker. She's been to wardrobe to collect the T-shirt, the baggy jeans and the tomboy haircut. There's an acoustic segment in the middle of the gig - de rigeur for the serious musician ... if, once again, three years out of date. And her rent-a-band have divvied up the signifiers of indiedom between them: one has punk spikes, one has an Adidas T-shirt, one has a beanie hat.

But as an indie chick, Imbruglia's characterisation is no more rounded than it was when she was surrounded by wobbly Ramsay Street sets. Onstage, she forgets about the watery-eyed, sulky persona she adopts for her record sleeves, and instead she giggles and skips nervously, and she shakes her head with the confidence of someone who knows that her every hair has been individually cut and conditioned to ensure it will fall back exactly into place. It's a fine, lively, professional show, and entirely uninvolving. Next year, she'll be filling Wembley Arena.

: Dublin Olympia (00 353 1 677 7744), Tues & Wed; Glasgow Barrowlands (0141 552 4601), Thurs; Lyceum Theatre (0870 606 3448), Sat & Sun; and touring. Natalie Imbruglia: Poole Arts Ctr (01202 685222, Mon); Forum, NW5 (0171 344 0044), Wed & Thurs.