ROCK / Great Belly with a dreadful Sting in the tale

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ON THE FLOOR of the Cambridge Junction, two teenagers are trying to take their relationship to a higher level. A very large bouncer reaches down and gently taps the uppermost of the couple on the shoulder, suggesting that this might not be the time or the place. Onstage, the band are also showing lusty appetites. Belly might have been hard to stomach. They are led by former Throwing Muse Tanya Donelly whose lyrics aspire to be twisted fairytales, but could come out as insipid psychological parlour games. In performance the whoops and wows of her band's debut album Star (4 AD) are very effective.

Much of the credit for this goes to new bassist Gail Greenwood, whose arrival has given Belly the look of a full-strength band at last. Her liberal use of the word 'awesome' and tendency to disport herself like a member of Aerosmith offer a welcome contrast to the sickly mien of the rest of the band. Donelly's songs do tend toward the macabre - 'Slow Dog' for example concerns a woman who walks around with a dead dog on her back - but her voice soars and floats with childish vigour above the band's delicate guitar mesh. The highlight of the show is 'Untogether'; the last, acoustic encore. Its a personal and rather scary dissection of unsuccessful relationships - 'I was ship-wrecked with this frog' - in which Donelly's voice flukes up and down with perfect control.

Sparky Irish chanteuse Mary Coughlan has not been well-served by the music industry. She is a singular presence, with a voice like honey dripping off a spoon and a dry sense of mischief. 'My ex-husband wrote that song for me,' she announces after one languid smooch at the Clapham Grand. 'He's still making money off me, the bastard.' Coughlan's distinctiveness has to some extent been her undoing. As her major label struggled to pigeonhole her, they spent more and more money making increasingly bland albums, finally reaching a point where she had no hope of recouping their investment.

Now she's making a low-key return; recording a cheap live album for canny independent label Demon, and playing to her strengths. The languorous nature of her performance makes it hard to watch standing up - you feel drinks should be being brought to your table. A lilting standard like 'A Fine Romance' is slowed almost to a standstill, but there is an inner sprightliness about even her stateliest moments, and she gives a delightful sly curve to an apparently straightforward quickstep like 'Man of the World'. This talent is too big to be wasted.

'It's a pop record in the truest sense,' says Sting of his latest solo album Ten Summoner's Tales. I'm sorry, but we the people will have to be the judge of that. The record's title - a laborious pun combining its author's real name with the work of Chaucer - does not suggest a pure pop sensibility. Nor do the admittedly amusing inner-sleeve photos of Sting on horseback carrying a lute. Just to confuse things even more, there are 12 songs here instead of 10. The 'prologue' and 'epilogue' are actually the simplest and catchiest - if Sting really wanted to make a pure pop statement, he should have forgotten about the middle bit and released these as a double A-sided single.

The opening 'If I should Lose my Faith in You' offers the same mix of ponderous title and beguiling melody that The Police used to do so well. After this promising start, a bold voyage back to pop basics runs aground on the mighty rocks of Sting's ego. A praiseworthy attempt is clearly being made to cut out jazz-rock doodling and lyrical pretentiousness, but when it comes to the crunch he just can't do it. Instead of crisp and simple songwriting you get titles like 'Saint Augustine in Hell' and Sting wittering on about fields of barley. The tunes aren't quite strong enough to carry the conceits. Even Larry Adler's chromatic harmonica cannot save the day.

Building a convincing pop identity can be a confusing business in this day and age. Last week, Detroit techno-soul outfit The Reese Project played a showcase for their forthcoming album, Faith-Hope-Clarity (Network, 15 March). A first draft of this record has been available here for a couple of months now, but this is the remixed version for which a gaggle of esteemed knob-twiddlers have spiced up the songs to make them more accessible for a British audience. At Ronnie Scott's the nation's dance cognoscenti munch uneasily on a lush assortment of canapes while mastermind Kevin Saunderson introduces his proteges and says how hard they've worked.

There are three of them - camp, muscly Terence F M, Saunderson's demure wife and co-writer Ann, and an 18-year-old bundle of energy called Latrece. They take it in turn to sing lead over the pristine, remodelled backing tracks, barking and whooping and asking 'Are you still with me?' as crowd members decide whether they will lose face if they tap a foot. The richness of the gospel- tinged vocals and the hi-tech backing tapestries make for a compelling combination on songs like the current single 'So Deep'. When The Reese Project tour properly in the spring, along with Saunderson's other band Inner City, sparks should fly.

Belly play London Town & Country (071-284 0303), 14 March. Sting's 'Ten Summoner's Tales' (A&M 540 075) is out tomorrow.