ROCK / Juliet strings Elvis along

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The Independent Culture
FIRST JOHN Cale, now Elvis Costello, and in two weeks, believe it or not, Duran Duran; these days no self-respecting rock visionary leaves the house without a string quartet. It's not just high cultural Brownie points they're after, but freedom from the tyranny of the back-beat. Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet emerge from the wedding cake splendour of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with a real sense of liberation. Over the last decade Costello's talent has atrophied, but the ponderous-seeming conceit of The Juliet Letters has miraculously restored his lightness of spirit.

The stiffness of his posture - as if the coat-hanger were left in his jacket - belies his obvious enjoyment. He looks so much better without that awful beard. Singing at a lectern cannot be easy, and Costello's voice has always tended to sound strained even with the protection of rock'n'roll amplification, but left to fend for itself it rises superbly to the challenge.

This is no one-man show. Say what you like about these classical types, but they can really play their instruments. And they're not just hired hands. Much of the writing was collaborative, and the set's most obvious pop song, 'Jacksons, Monk & Rowe' - the catchiest tune ever named after a Middlesbrough firm of solicitors - turns out to have been co-written by Quartet members Michael and Jackie Thomas. It's Costello's night in the end though, and he earns his encores. Not all of The Juliet Letters works, but the many bits that do suggest that if Elvis really is writing a musical, the middle ground between Kurt Weill and Andrew Lloyd-Webber is his for the taking.

The talents of Dinosaur Jr, especially their mercurially uncommunicative mainstay J Mascis, are distinctly non-verbal. There is real eloquence, though, in the great frazzled mess of noise Mascis conjures from his guitar; sometimes too much. One can sympathise with the faintheart who whispers, 'I wish he'd stop playing that thing'. As so often at the Brixton Academy, the sound is all over the place. The drummer sounds like he's parked in a car outside. At first a bad night seems in prospect - and when Dinosaur Jr are bad they are horrid - but when they start in on their current album, Where You Been, the proceedings take an upward turn. This is their best record since 1987's epic grunge primer You're Living All Over Me. Dinosaur Jr are too lacksadaisical to capitalise fully on their poppier aspects, but that's the point of them.

Frank Black - formerly Black Francis of The Pixies - is not a conventional rock god, but a marked resemblance to the Pilsbury Doughboy has not stopped him building a considerable mystique. Black's old band were their generation's Talking Heads: eclectic, snooty college rockers with the odd savage twist. His first solo album, Frank Black (4AD CAD 3004), is an odd mix of influences - Iggy Pop, Roy Wood, Mexican test-card music and the Beach Boys. The first song, about other towns called Los Angeles that are probably nicer than the famous one, sets the tone of tangential cleverness. The best moments - a chugging instrumental called 'Tossed', a tribute to the Ramones - suggest a large talent unfettered, but elsewhere there's a frustrating lack of engagement.

There is no such absence in the strange and seamy world of Pulp. 'This song's about two sisters,' explains the band's overwrought frontman, Jarvis Cocker, 'the younger one wears the elder's clothes so she can go out with her ex-boyfriend.' Jarvis is a true star - a whey-faced gangler who sings of sexual hysteria in Sheffield with inspiring conviction. He too can boast an unlikely pop lineage - P J Proby, The Motors' 'Airport' and Baccara's 'Yes Sir I Can Boogie' spring to mind, with a dash of J G Ballard thrown in.

The band's music - all scraping violin and wobbly keyboard - is not quite so compelling as Cocker's storylines, but that does not seem to bother the crowd at the Equinox Ballroom. Many people are so taken with the idea of a Seventies-inspired resurgence of characterful British pop that they are wearing Afghan coats. As if to hammer home the message that revivalism is to be avoided, there is a power cut in the middle of Pulp's best song.

Headliners Saint Etienne are also in love with great British pop, but they are a little bit too self- conscious about it. Songwriter/ theoreticians Stanley and Wiggs lurk behind their keyboards in crimson velvet trouser-suits. Frontwoman Sarah Cracknell looks the part - the adopted daughter of Karen Carpenter and Petula Clarke, waving a feather boa in front of a paper heart. Unfortunately she sings like her mouth is full of candyfloss. As the first half of their current album, So Tough (Heavenly), proves, Saint Etienne have got some good songs of their own, and they do a nice job on the theme from Absolute Beginners. But the fluffy beats and clanking keyboards soon start to pall, and after a while the feeling is one of having eaten too many marshmallows.