ROCK / Costello and the distractions

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The Independent Culture
NO WONDER Elvis Costello and the Attractions broke up. Costello must have got tired of being upstaged all the time. The worst culprit is Steve Nieve, the keyboard player. Costello wears a black jacket and specs; Nieve sports a spotlight-catching white jacket and shades. Costello swaps from acoustic to electric guitar between songs; Nieve flits between three different synthesisers in as many bars. As befits the musical director of Jonathan Ross's Incredibly Strange Film Show, Nieve is a cross between Igor and the Phantom of the Opera. He ducks and pounces from keyboard to keyboard, bursting into the arrangement with two-handed chromatic scales, circus swirls, and boogie-woogie frills. So that's why Costello always looks so angry. I bet he never had this trouble with the Brodsky Quartet.

But he is big enough to stick up for himself. His voice - a whine of an excellent vintage - attacks every song with the same conviction, although it suffers from a kind of vertigo, weakening when it approaches the high notes. His guitar-playing is even better. It is still underrated, probably because his solos are not long and indulgent, but, like some of his best songs, brief and brutal. As a performer he goes wrong only when he has a bash at comedy. 'Thank you, thank you, and as they say in Europe, thank you,' he says, as well as splitting our sides with that Albert Hall perennial: 'Welcome to the first night of the Proms.' Of course, this being Elvis Costello, these could be acerbic, ironic meta-jokes. But I reckon he should stick to the songs.

Put him alongside Nieve, the mad scientist, Bruce Thomas, the bassist who, despite writing a book about the miseries of touring with the Attractions, actually seems to be enjoying himself, and Pete Thomas, the highly skilled drummer who never hits four beats a bar when 20 will suffice, and you wonder if the Attractions really are the perfect pop partnership that everyone says they are. Tonight it sometimes seems as if each of these four men has learnt the music from a different score, in which their own instrument is the lead. As the emperor tells Mozart in Amadeus, it's fine, but there are too many notes. The sound man joins in the battle, turning Costello and Nieve up to full volume, so that even if you are not whistling the tunes on the way home, your ears are.

The material from Brutal Youth (Warner) includes more breathing space than the early hits, but tracks like 'Rocking Horse Road' and 'London's Brilliant Parade' do not have the same razor-sharp hooks.

The songs on which Costello and Nieve are not jockeying for position come as a relief. In the beautiful 'Shipbuilding', Costello puts aside his guitar and leaves the Attractions to provide a restrained, cocktail-jazz backing. And for the first encore, a magical 'Favourite Hour', Nieve resembles the Phantom of the Opera more than ever by playing along to Costello's croon on the Albert Hall's pipe organ. Then the volume is back at 11 again for 'Lipstick Vogue' and '(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea'.

By this stage, though, the bombardment is less frightening. This is because the mix is clearer and the latter half of the two-hour show includes more of the classics ('Alison' and 'Accidents Will Happen' are there, but not 'Oliver's Army'). But it could also be because the 1994 Attractions just take some getting used to. The layers of instrumentation fit together: it requires effort to work out how. This is not easy listening. You cannot relax and enjoy the music any more than you can passively absorb the tightly packed lyrics.

Costello now combines the vicious speed of his old punk contemporaries with the rich complexities of his new classical friends. He is as rewarding as he is demanding.

And, what the hell, 'Pump it up' is still a damn good rock song.

As well as sharing Costello's taste in eyewear and fondness for the word 'attraction', Eddi Reader is another singer who fancies herself as something of a comedian. The former frontwoman of Fairground Attraction's favourite rib-tickler goes along the lines that she is not Eddi Reader at all, but an impersonator from Stars in Their Eyes. At least, I think it's a joke. On the other hand, the band at the Forum could be a bunch of eager amateurs who have had a few ciders to boost their courage and are having a go at some gypsy pop.

Reader herself seems to have had more to drink than the others. She waves her arms around to play air guitar and air drums. She dances by hiking up the skirts of her white dress and clomping and can-canning. When she introduces 'Scarecrow', while tuning her acoustic guitar, she mumbles: 'This song is about me. It's a plea for less idealism in the world . . . like guitar tuning. This takes me years, so maybe you should go for a pee . . . Erm, do you know any good jokes . . . These strings were in tune when I bought the guitar . . .' There's nothing wrong with a bit of chatting to the audience, but this rambling seems designed to prevent any possibility of crowd violence by defusing the concert's atmosphere. And as there are already two people playing acoustic guitar on the song, there didn't seem much point in having a third one, anyway.

The rest of the show is in the same tone: slapdash and cheerfully informal. It is never as glossy as Eddi Reader (Warner), the new album, which recently materialised at No 4 in the charts. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion. If you heard the group in your local pub they would be a rollicking soundtrack to a pint or two. They get the audience nodding their heads but never raving.

Some moments stand out, however. The lights dim for 'When I Watch You Sleeping', with its menacing bass-line and story of a woman who cannot decide whether to confess to her affair: 'There's a number in my pocket that I should really lose . . . When I hear you talking with your unquestioning faith, I stop our eyes from meeting.' If it were in the third person, it could be an Elvis Costello song.

Then there is Reader's piercing voice, which flies up to pitches which only dogs can hear. You don't get that on Stars in Their Eyes.

The Crash Test Dummies have always admitted that they are just pretending to be rock stars. Their tack in interviews is that they dream of being dentists, but will stick with music in the meantime. At the Forum on Friday, the Canadian sextet play it for laughs. Brad Roberts, the frontman with the Timotei-advertisement hair, grins throughout the show. The darker the lyric, the bigger the grin. A reference to heart disease comes along with a hearty wink. Meanwhile, Benjamin Darvill, the multi-instrumentalist who looks like a less healthy version of Johnny Rotten, elicits a cheer just from his embarrassed expression as he taps away on the triangle.

Joking apart, the goofy country pop of God Shuffled His Feet (BMG) is astute and original, even if it all sounds like the hit single 'Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm' at varying speeds. The Crash Test Dummies have an invaluable schtick in Roberts' voice, which is so low that it's subterranean. And if his frequent coughing fits are anything to go by, those worrying lyrics about smoking-induced diseases may not be entirely tongue in cheek.

It is unlikely that they can sustain this formula for much longer. But for now, they are a lot more fun than a visit to the dentist.

Elvis Costello: Liverpool Royal Court, 051-709 4321, Tues; Newcastle City Hall, 091-261 2606, Wed; Glasgow Barrowlands, 041-552 4601, Thurs. Eddi Reader: Nottingham Theatre Royal, 0602 482626, tonight; Glasgow Garage, 041-332 1120, Mon; Aberdeen Lemon Tree, 0224 642230, Tues; Leeds Irish Centre, 0532 742486, Thurs; Stratford Phoenix Festival, 071-284 4111, Fri; Dublin Tivoli, 010 353 154 4472, next Sun. Crash Test Dummies: Stratford Phoenix Festival, 071-284 4111, Sat.

(Photograph omitted)

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