Pop Tindersticks/ Baby Bird/ High Llamas/ Sparklehorse The Astoria, London

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The Independent Culture
It's rare enough these days that you find two decent bands on the same bill, let alone four. So hats off to the New Musical Express and their "Brats" awards for staging this splendidly eclectic showcase of maverick rock talent. Anyone tiring of the relentless media merry-go- round of Britpop would have done well to be there.

The night begins with Sparklehorse, oddball Virginians who roam the same "lo-fi" landscape inhabited by the likes of Palace and Pavement. Veering from the snarling "Hammering the Cramps" to the bewitchingly pretty "Homecoming Queen", Mark Linkous's group may just be too twisted and neo-Gothic for their own good. But their debut album, out in April, is well worth investigation.

The first of three rapid changeovers brings us the wonderful High Llamas. Simply getting this 12-piece ensemble on stage is no mean feat. But when the ensemble in question proceeds to reproduce the kinds of sounds and arrangements Brian Wilson patented 30 years ago with Pet Sounds, their achievement is even more arresting. Wilfully anachronistic, they offer a kind of mystical muzak, or Mike Flowers Pops sans kitsch: symphonic weaves of sliding strings and swelling horns, flinty guitars and primitive Sixties organs. It may not make for great live entertainment, but if new pieces like "Ill-Fitting Suits" are anything to go by, their forthcoming album will surpass even the masterful Gideon Gaye.

Jolting us quickly out of the introspective mood established by the first two acts, Stephen Jones of Baby Bird stumbles drunkenly on to the stage, opens his spangled shirt to reveal a hideous vest, and launches into his first number: "I was born a man/ But I wish I was a woman..." Jones has made his made his name by rushing out three primitively recorded albums spilling over with songs that are at once hook-laden and wildly surreal. Taking on the stage persona of an obnoxious stand-up comic would suggest that he finds it as hard to take himself as seriously as everyone else is taking him.

I used to think Tindersticks were a little too derivative of Nick Cave and the whole school of doomed alcoholic romance. Now I think there's an authentically forlorn quality to them which translates wonderfully well to live performance. With his husky baritone and slurred vibrato, Stuart Staples has become an inspired singer. Violin and acoustic guitar lend a quality to the stripped-down sound that is at one moment gypsy- ish and the next redolent of some enervated palm-court quartet. It's refreshing enough to find a British band who even acknowledge such European influences as Brel and Weill. "She's Gone" is sublime and "Talk To Me" recalls the jazz-infused glories of Ed Kuepper's Laughing Clowns.

Mannered they may be, but Tindersticks seem genuinely possessed by their music. Few Britpop contenders could say as much of themselves.

BARNEY HOSKYNS

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