ROCK / Absolutely nuts about Almond

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The Independent Culture
PIXIE, degenerate, humanist, Jacques Brel-nut: Marc Almond, this was your life. The prospect of Marc coming the diva at the Royal Albert Hall is slightly daunting: two hours of that voice might be a fast track to a migraine. What 'Twelve Years of Tears' actually turns out to be is the most brilliantly realised live pop extravaganza of this year: reorganising a patchy career, from the pioneering electro sex-angst of Soft Cell through years of slightly wearing eclecticism to last year's excellent Tenement Symphony (Warners), into a single joyous pageant.

Almond makes a boxer's entrance, complete with exotic escorts and sequinned robe. This he removes - the first of more costume changes than Diana Ross could shake a sequin at - to reveal a leather biker's outfit, setting the tone for the warm-hearted sado-disco of the opening numbers. Much of his recent material is co-written with old Cell-mate David Ball, and the best of it - 'Meet Me In My Dream' for example - is like top-quality Pet Shop Boys without the reserve. Almond's voice, which tends to grate over long periods on record, seems to come alive when you see him perform, partly because his movements are so amusing - he darts compactly about the stage, gives little bows and waves his arms in a baroque flourish - but also because there is no getting away from how much he means what he is singing.

The show changes gear effortlessly down and up though tortured torch songs at the piano to ancient pop monuments like 'Bedsitter' and on to the second half's grand orchestral epics such as 'The Days of Pearly Spencer'. Dancers, backing singers, a brace of keyboard wizards, an ace percussionist, and coach-loads of grumpy-looking violinists troop on and off stage exactly on cue. If it goes to Almond's head - all this control, and the imploring adult hands and faces, male and female, reaching up to him from the front and shamelessly mouthing the words - Almond doesn't show it. Well, not much. Someone passes him a teddy bear, which he accepts, kisses, drops, and later treads on. And the intro to 'Tainted Love' is put deliberately off-sequence, so the crowd's handclaps go out of time. But then he comes out, bedenimed, as himself, for an affecting 'What Makes a Man a Man'. Finally, amid 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye', a shower of pink balloons falls from the roof and Almond leaves the stage to a noisy firework display of bursting rubber and exploded preconceptions.

The show put on by Bob Mould's Sugar at the Town & Country Club could hardly be in sharper contrast. There's nothing to look at but a trio of close- cropped foreheads, Mould's occasional face-pull, and the bassist's cauliflower nose. But the sound is enough for anyone: a beautiful clear blur of melodic fuzz, played at break-finger speed by men possessed. Bob is a gentle-looking individual who looks as if he might fix your car if you asked him, but he was also, through his band Husker Du, the Jimi Hendrix of the Eighties; completely rewriting the catalogue of noises you might hear from an electric guitar.

With the advent of this new band, the cares of the world seem to have been lifted from his shoulders after an increasingly depressing solo career, and he has resumed his old frantic work-rate. Mould writes as he plays - not in notes, but in swathes. Sugar's recently released debut, Copper Blue (Creation) makes up little more than half of this savage, glowing performance - the follow-up is already finished, and on this evidence it will be even more intense. In truth, Husker Du had become too prolific for their own good by the end, and were getting boring by the time they split up. But with Sugar, Mould seems to be heading back where he belongs - straight into the maelstrom.

The conviction that you are Jesus is not a good thing in a pop star, particularly when millions of people seem to agree with you. The video for REM's current single 'Drive' features Michael Stipe being passed Messianically over the heads of a wetly adoring crowd, which does not augur well for the band's new album. Against all the odds, Automatic For The People (Warner Bros) is the first REM album in years that is more than just another REM album. It's sombre, certainly, but lovely too. And, best of all, it is almost entirely free of the soppy self-regard which made the global success of Out Of Time such a depressing development. The best thing about this last-ditch retreat from self-parody is that it's hard to see how it happened. John Paul-Jones's orchestral arrangements are fine, but it's the unfussiness of downbeat highlights like 'Star Me Kitten' and 'Nightswimming' that most warms the heart.

The return of their old college radio sparring partners has rather overshadowed the first stirrings in a while from 10,000 Maniacs. Natalie Merchant and her band flew in for a one-off showcase at Kensington's tiny Orange club, to sound a muted fanfare for their new album Our Time In Eden (Elektra). This was one of those evenings which is supposed to thrive on intimacy, but fans get skinned by touts, and it all feels false. The band's delicate folk-rock stylings are miraculously unencumbered by the presence of Bruce Springsteen's old drummer, and the stand-in horn section seems to work, but you'd need to see the new songs played in a bigger space to know if they matched up to old favourites like 'What's The Matter Here'.

Sugar play Edinburgh Venue (031-557 3073), tonight and around the country all week (081-986 7145). Marc Almond's 'Twelve Years Of Tears' will be released on album and video next year.

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