Pop: Tarnation; Dingwall's, London

Charlotte O'Sullivan falls for melancholia from the valley of the shadow of death

At 13, Tarnation's Paula Frazer was chucked out of school for smoking dope. As a result her father was fired from his job and the family had to leave town... It shows. Tarntion's music is no happiness fest. Try imagining Patsy Cline yodelling through the valley of the shadow of death. And then imagine somthing twice as lonely.

Tarnation, who played to a small but intense crowd at Dingwall's on Thursday night, are an unholy product of cowgirl punk and warped muzak. One bar will remind you of Lone Justice, the next of Chris Isaak. Whatever, it's not New Country and it's not tongue-in-cheek New Wave. It feels as old and earnest as the hills.

Tonight Paula Frazer, born and raised in the Deep South, wears a black velvet dress with a huge choker: in a good light she could pass for Elkie Brooks (at other times, it's undoubtedly Agnes Moorhead). She has a new band and they're mighty impressive. Her two guitarists take root on either side, plucking their strings with the concentrations of village idiots. Behind the trio, the drummer essays soothing brush strokes.

The melancholy anthems "The Well" and "Game of Broken Hearts" emerge slower than on last year's glorious Gentle Creatures album, increasing the dangerous desire to swoon. But with Frazer there's no ground to catch you, nowhere to fall except down, down, down. It goes so deep it makes your groin itch. Incredibly, Frazer seems oblivious to her power: she sways with the blank-eyed intensity of a Cassandra and then burbles between songs like a wacky grandmammy, "Hey, the lights are so bright, here, it's like a UFO. It's OK, I'm not tripping..."

Highlight of the evening is "Halfway to Madness", with Frazer wailing, "In the muddy brown water where I wrote your name..." It all makes as much sense as the words of someone thrashing in their sleep. "How simple things seemed, when I just wanted to hold you" - ah, now we know what she's talking about. Her pure voice sours and the guitars build, putting you in mind of trains leaving town, cabooses rattling furiously along the tracks. That's Tarnation's music for you: providing a soundtrack for all the cheesy, hurtful images your dreams have ever thrown up.

When the mesmerised audience realise Tarnation have left the stage they start to whoop and holler. Frazer and the boys return. "Hello again, we'll do 'Big O Motel'," she says and the crowd cheers. "You really want some torture, don't you?" cackles Frazer, "seven minutes of torture." We're talking lost love here and "cologne-drenched curtains" - pure high-school poetry - but in the mouth of this careworn woman it works. Yeah, we're wallowing in pain and lordy, it feels good.

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