Rita, Edie and stellar

Dubstar are not quite like a lot of things, other pop groups included. Indeed, they are way beyond compare
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The Independent Culture
"I got my period live on TV and my bra came undone. That's why the high notes were a bit dodgy." So groans Sarah Blackwood, platinum- voiced chanteuse with "kitchen-sink pop" trio Dubstar. Sarah talks like Rita Tushingham but dresses like Edie Sedgwick - a fair description of the band themselves. Steve Hillier's daydream keyboards and Chris Wilkie's Marr-guitar are iced with Sarah's extraordinary voice, which sounds how Catherine Deneuve looks. She weaves tales of old ladies raped in high- rise tower blocks ("Not So Manic Now") or urges us to "take our hearts outside and leave our lives behind" ("Stars"), never blinking, never acknowledging the audience, like a pretty Liam Gallagher.

Dubstar have been compared to Saint Etienne, ie two blokes and blonde sex-symbol singer. In sentiment, they couldn't be more different. Dubstar are incapable of aloof wit or insincerity. There is nothing smart-alecky about their sound. They missed the Britpop boat - presumably because their debut album, Disgraceful, was too unashamedly heartfelt to sit alongside your roll with it and your country houses.

Steve Hillier considers this as he sits in a Rome diner, staring at his minestrone.

"There is too much overstatement in music today. I think our music is tasteful without necessarily being polite. You can have tasteful high- rise blocks. Our songs are crafted, but not in a studied way."

Chris Wilkie, who looks like Richard Beckinsale and is of similarly naive yet world-weary Porridge-era demeanour, nods. "If Dubstar can do anything, I hope we wipe out opera and heavy metal - anything with too many notes."

Before their Rome gig, Dubstar perform on Roxy Bar, a popular Italian TV programme. Presenter Red Ronnie, who might pass for "third Mafioso" in a Scorsese flick if he didn't look quite so much like Alan Titchmarsh, likes the sound of his own voice. The rest of the show includes a band of moustachioed men playing horn instruments, a lady with no bra playing the guitar and a priest getting applause for no apparent reason.

The room is crowded with swishy female production assistants who wear "I am important" expressions and rush around like busy Versace- clad bees. At one point, a guard brushes me back, fearful that I am about to rush Red Ronnie. At the end of "Not So Manic Now", he asks Sarah what her real name is, unaware that Dubstar are, in fact, a band. This is to the chagrin of Chris, who will later slope into the dressing room as Sarah fixes her false eyelashes and ask her to sign a record for "someone outside who didn't recognise me". In faltering English, Red Ronnie asks if Newcastle is cool, good place for British teenagers, no, OK? The lights are unbearably hot and Sarah's painstakingly applied eye make-up is beginning to melt.

Watching Sarah make up her face is like being trapped in an Annie Lennox video, but good. First she applies green base, then white foundation, then two different powders. She sprays a pin-thin brush with an Evian atomiser and lines her lids with black cake. Then come the false eyelashes and flesh-coloured lipstick. Sarah Blackwood: by day, she's a fresh-faced northern lass - by night, she's a Warhol superstar.

"It all started one night I was up late with a friend. I was in velvet jeans and a bra and all me mascara was running down me face. He looked at me and said `Bloody hell, it's Edie Sedgwick.' I said `Who?' Then I saw a picture of her and I've been obsessed ever since."

The anorexic and amphetamine-addicted socialite, girlfriend of Bob Dylan and Warhol acolyte, has inspired Sarah since college. Yet, in the flesh, Sarah seems like the last person who'd want to live fast and die young. She is a girl's girl who thinks she's too fat to be photographed and too stupid to talk in interviews. Chris and Steve found a sweet-voiced beauty to carry their songs and Sarah, in reward, found a disguise - the pretend life of being in a pop band. On stage, Edie Sedgwick takes over from Rita Tushingham.

The Italian fans who crowd the stage door tend to make statements rather than ask questions. "You will sign this for me, please", or "You are like Saint Etienne." "No," says Sarah, like a woman accused of eating puppy dogs. A sad-looking man in an anorak talks his way into the dressing room, wanting to interview Dubstar for an Italian DJ magazine. He announces that he used to be in Black Box and wrote their hit "Ride On Time". "It was the most important Italian record ever made," he said. Chris tries to keep a straight face, but once the DJ has left, we become very sad. Which is worse - to pretend you were in Black Box, or to have actually been in Black Box and now be reduced to blagging your way into dressing rooms? We hope he was just pretending.

Dubstar, perhaps tainted by this strange, sad man with his too-small anorak and his too-big head, put on a performance of near-inspirational despondency. Chris seems to be playing his guitar for himself, aware that most reviewers call Dubstar a synthesiser band, as if he weren't even there.

Sarah is standing stock-still, eyes weary under her lashes, singing like an angel and wearing a black Sixties A-line dress. Just below her chest, a thread hangs precariously, catching in the white light. You want to ask her to stop and let you rip it off, until you realise that a dress with a snag is just perfect for Dubstar. Imagine if, at the height of her powers, Brigitte Bardot knew what she would become. That moment of realisation is their oeuvre. Recall the three most heart-wrenching pop lyrics of the year - Oasis's "please don't put your life in the hands of a rock 'n' roll band/ they'll throw it all away" ("Don't Look Back In Anger"), Take That's "Someday soon this will be someone else's dream" ("Never Forget") and Blur's "When the days seem to fall through you/ just let them go" ("Universal"). That is how each and every Dubstar song makes you feel.

Of course, these are not particularly pleasant emotions and may not a successful band make. Although their last two singles have been Top 15 hits, it is quite disconcerting to hear "Stars" between "I Want to Be a Hippy" and Boyzone. Andy Ross, who signed Dubstar to his label, Food, also home to Blur and Shampoo, is optimistic.

"Aside from anything else, they've got the tunes," he said. "They are different from anything else around. They get that Saint Etienne comparison, but I think Dubstar are far more poppy and substantial without drifting into Ace of Bass territory."

Mix together the Human League, Astrud Gilberto, Kraftwerk, Marianne Faithfull, The Smiths and Repulsion and you've probably got... a big mess. Dubstar are almost like a lot of things, but not quite. It is the "not quite" that makes them.

n Dubstar play Brighton Pavilion Theatre (01273 709709) tonight; Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms (01705 863911) on Sat; and Heaven, London WC2 (0171-930 2020) on Sun

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