REVIEW / Here comes the weekend: The Sundays - Town & Country

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The Independent Culture
THE Sundays' first album came out two years ago. Picked up and swept along by the voice of Harriet Wheeler, it sounded hazy and dream-like, with occasional moments of vague anxiety. Small wonder the record struck a chord with students, for whom life is frequently like this. The band's second album, Blind, appeared last month and divided opinion by sounding pretty much like their first. For fans, this represented a glorious continuation. Those less favourably disposed wondered why the band waited two years before releasing a batch of out-takes. On Monday at the Town & Country, The Sundays brought the critics round to the fans' point of view.

They did so by playing all but two tracks from Blind and playing them with enormous vigour, as if intent on blitzing doubts about the material's strength simply by shaking it around, showing you what it could withstand. Whoever was behind the sound-desk was clearly a collaborator in this scheme, keeping the volume up right at the edge of feedback, so that the fizz of the cymbals perpetually threatened to turn back on itself and become an electric whine. And many of the songs came out of this assault looking shinier than they do on record: 'I Feel', which opened the show, took on a whole new set of dynamics. 'Goodbye', which closed it, rumbled along. Suddenly, these numbers seemed fit to sit alongside the old ones: 'Can't be Sure', 'Joy', 'Here's Where the Story Ends'.

David Gavurin's guitar worked hard, alternating between intricate arpeggios and thick swathes of electronically treated noise. (This is tougher than it looks, as proved by the support band, who spent 20 minutes torturing their strings to create some sort of spooky soundscape, but only succeeded in producing the noise of an ocean liner scraping against the edge of a quay.) Meanwhile, Paul Brindley's bass sounded as if it was being fed through a long cardboard tube, but rather than plodding away at the root note, he thickened the sound up by turning out little patterned melodies of his own.

And somewhere in between, Wheeler found space to loop her voice. Two years ago, hers was the first genuinely different pop voice to have been heard in ages and it still sounds fresh. She has a graceful way of lifting into falsetto and then drifting back down again. The obvious comparisons would be with other unconventional voices: Ofra Haza, or Sinead O'Connor in certain moods, or Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins. But perhaps more clearly present in her phrasing is an ear for straightforward pop. (The band seemed to suggest this by choosing to come on stage to a Barry White tape.) Where the others noodle around with their own technique, Wheeler's virtuosity is usually put to the service of tunefulness.

There was not a lot to watch while all this was going on. Wheeler occasionally risked clapping in time, but the paper cup of water left precariously at her feet was, in fact, never in any danger. Gavurin and Brindley were clenched in concentration over their guitars, and Patrick Hannan on drums had too much complex work on his hands even to look up. It was left to the fans to provide spectacle. One by one, they would clamber across the security rail and then stand on the lip of the stage, directly in front of Wheeler, arms opened out slightly in the sort of hopeless, beseeching gesture people adopt in amateur productions of Romeo and Juliet. It looked bizarrely worshipful: except they would then turn round and dive head-first into the front rows.

(Photograph omitted)