Rock & Pop: Never mind the CD - here's Mansun

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The Independent Culture
Mansun

Cambridge Corn Exchange

Republica

Cambridge Junction

Grandaddy

LA2, WC1

Imagine if Kevin Costner had been given the money to go off and make The Postman after starring in just one reasonably successful film. It wouldn't happen, would it? And that's the difference between the movie business and the music business. Pop people like to whinge about their art being tarnished by the evil corporate machine, but the fact is they've got more licence than almost any other artists in history.

are a perfect example. Last year, their debut album went to number one, and so EMI invested hundreds and thousands of pounds in its follow- up, Six. How have repaid their patrons? With a 70-minute concept album that is presumably aimed at anyone who thinks that The Who's rock operas suffered from being too unpretentious. Verses and choruses are jettisoned in favour of randomly assembled movements. Tracks last eight minutes each. There is a monologue from Tom Baker, a remix of The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy and there is the lyric, "the nature of uncarved blocks is how to describe what's hard to describe". It's not surprising that Six hasn't done as well as, to pick two names from the album chart, Five by Five and IV by Cypress Hill.

But here's where the Kevin Costner analogy breaks down. Six is dotted with passages in which Paul Draper demonstrates that he is a visionary - with a melodic gift the equal of any of his peers. If he'd only pay someone (ideally me) to prune the more ludicrous segments from his songs, he could make great records.

A few of the problems are rectified in 's enthusiastic live show. Coming on to a tape of the Sex Pistols, the band rip through raw, glam- punk versions of their songs, stripping down the album's excesses to a tight rhythm section, Dominic Chad's busy guitar and Draper's startling falsetto. The prog tendencies are still there, though, especially in the tuneless epic, "Shotgun". After it, Draper says, "Let's do the easy one," and the band launch into "Wide Open Space". And it is an easy one, constructed almost entirely of two chords repeated over and over. It's also 's best song, and an obvious crowd favourite. Write a few more easy ones, Paul. Make life easier for us all.

Republica are probably the world's most hateable band. Supposed ultra- fashionable ultra-modernists who take their bolshy punk attitude from the Seventies and their beats and riffs from the Eighties, they are so artificial that you're tempted to check their sleeve notes for E-numbers. On their album, there's a slighting lyric about people who "get into bands that split up in the Sixties". But which bands would Republica prefer us to get into? Transvision Vamp and Sigue Sigue Sputnik by the sound of things. The ersatz futurism ... the second-hand yobbishness ... my own theory is that their name is a portmanteau of pub and replica.

Their frontwoman, Saffron (real name: Samantha Spreckling), is an actress dressed as a pop star by a costumier for Absolutely Fabulous. Rather than singing, she puts on a Billy Idol-ish mockney sneer - faking her accent and her anger. Shouting your lyrics is all very well, but shouting them out-of-tune is just not acceptable. Also, she was rude to a friend of mine at last year's Reading Festival.

So I'm distressed to admit that I quite like their new album, Speed Ballads (Deconstruction). Some big-name producers have been hired to widen and deepen their sound, and Pub-replica themselves are more knowing and mature. More importantly, they're more tuneful. Their next single, "Try Everything", could be an Oasis anthem.

These improvements haven't yet filtered through to their live show. On Monday they were at the Cambridge Junction, a drafty shed which is not normally the habitat of million-selling international pop stars. Republica, though, seemed right at home. They came across as a band down on their luck, wheeling out the old hits to pay their back taxes. Their backdrop was left over from their last tour. Their live line-up had shrunk from five members to four, and the extra dimensions on Speed Ballads were squashed down into thrashy, dancey, noisy, shouty mush. Even Saffron's red-and- black bob is looking like a relic. When a pop star sticks with the same high-maintenance hairstyle for so long, she's either short of imagination or afraid that no one will recognise her without her trademark. Or else it's a wig. I wouldn't give up on Republica just yet, but this showing suggested that they've given up on themselves. The crowd didn't really start jumping up and down until "Ready To Go". And after that, they were ready to go home.

There is no band more remote from Republica than Grandaddy, a five-piece from smalltown California. Republica thank Donatella Versace on their CD insert, while at Tuesday's Grandaddy show, Jason Lytle, their singer- guitarist, mumbled fearfully about London's "boutiques and gourmet shoe- shops". Throughout their set the band hid behind plastic trees, and Lytle revealed hardly any face at all between the peak of his baseball cap and his Abraham Lincoln jaw-fringe.

With little to look at but foliage - some plastic, some facial - we could concentrate on the wistful beauty of the songs from last year's universally adored album, Under the Western Freeway (Big Cat). Grandaddy's warped Americana sounds like Neil Young backed by Spiritualized, using instruments picked up from a second-hand shop for $100; or the Velvet Underground if they had hailed from a back-of-beyond country burg which offered few pastimes but sitting on your porch and watching alien landings. Grandaddy's new single, "AM 180", is the most tear-jerkingly romantic pop song ever played on a toy piano and a fuzz bass.

In concert, the band are a little too gentle for their own good: people can - and do - talk over them. It would have been nice if there had been some difference in animation between the musicians and the trees, too, but Grandaddy will continue to blossom and bear fruit.

Republica: Astoria, WC1 (0171 434 0403) Wed; Nottingham Rock City (0115 958 8484) Thurs; Bristol Univ (0117 929 9008) Fri; Wolverhampton Wulfrun (01902 552121) Sat. Grandaddy: Colchester Arts Centre, tonight.

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