Rock & Pop: Okay, Luke. I don't like you either

Auteurs Embassy Rooms, London Afghan Whigs/Webb Brothers Camden Palace, London
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The Independent Culture
As an encore, the Auteurs played "Lenny Valentino", the old favourite their fans had been waiting for. "We're only ever predictable in one sense," smirked Luke Haines, "and this is it." I doubt that even he believed it. Haines has many merits, but unpredictability is not one of them. You quickly learn what to expect not just from Auteurs records, but from those of Haines's two offshoot projects, Baader Meinhof and Black Box Recorder. They always have a brooding intelligence, for instance, and there are usually some glistening pop hooks. Threatening to overshadow these, there is Haines's sarcastic nastiness. It's there when he introduces "The Rubettes" as "our last top-75 hit". It's there in the sinister music. "Unsolved Child Murder" anyone? Or how about "Your Gang Our Gang", which is Gary Glitter's "I'm The Leader of the Gang (I Am)" with added razors? Even less subtly, if that's possible,the nastiness manifested itself on Wednesday in the guillotine set up on the stage.

One of the most striking aspects of the Auteurs' latest album, How I Learned To Love the Bootboys (see what I mean?), is how similar the Auteurs can be to Pulp. Both bands like a little Scott Walker drama in their songs; both bands utilise tight arrangements of buzzing guitars and simple keyboards. Take account of Haines's current lyrical preoccupation with his seedy adolescence, and his delivery of these narratives in seething whispers and grunts, and you could mistake him for Cocker's evil brother. "Romeo and Juliet, we can be like them," he hisses on one song. "Come on, Leslie, turn the lights out."

But it's no accident that Cocker's star has risen as Haines's has fallen. As he stands and strums an acoustic guitar, his piggy eyes glaring beneath a beetle brow, it's clear that misanthropy is no substitute for the Cocker charisma. Haines has the requisite bile, but not enough of the compensatory humour and humanity. His voice is limited, too, and his band's sound is not as rich and dynamic as Pulp's.

Mind you, there's no shame in not being up to Pulp's standards. Even Pulp weren't up to Pulp's standards for a decade or so. Perhaps, like Cocker before him, Haines just has to keep waiting for major success to come along; but I'd guess that any opportunity that was going to knock has already done so. The Auteurs were shortlisted for a Mercury Music Prize in 1993 (Suede won), and Haines was a founding father of Britpop. Then, when the genre got going, he despised and disowned it. Britpop fans weren't much keener on him. It's what you would have predicted.

The Afghan Whigs' musical scope has expanded with their waistlines. Grunge contenders at the start of the 1990s, the Whigs would now rather namecheck Curtis Mayfield than Kurt Cobain. Their music still has grunge's savage attack, but it's also got funky bass lines, rollicking boogie-woogie piano and angst-free lyrics about drinking cocktails in lovers' lane, baby. A sign of this broadening came on Monday, at the start of "66", when Greg Dulli, the head Whig, as it were, switched off the drum machine and refused to restart it unless we "respect and appreciate the beat". A man you might generously call an unlikely sex symbol, he is a sex symbol none the less. He looks like Paul, the thick-jawed stooge on Spin City, but he has the gentlemanly Vegas showmanship of the Fun Lovin' Criminals. "It's been our pleasure to be your entertainment this evening," he schmoozes at the end of the set, a phrase which would normally follow music of half the tempo and a quarter of the volume.

The Whigs' determination to get the hips moving as well as the ears bleeding makes for an entertaining evening indeed, although it doesn't quite come off on their current album, 1965. Here, the band's grunge roots vanish altogether and their soulfulness - signified by saxophone solos and a black, female vocalist - seems grafted on. What's left is Dulli's lover- man cliches and the workmanlike rock'n'roll of a less catchy Black Crowes- U2 hybrid. Stick to the concerts.

Opening the show were the Webb Brothers, the two sons of Jimmy Webb. To hear them, you wouldn't necessarily guess that their dad wrote "Galveston", "The Wichita Lineman", and other perfect portraits of manly-but-vulnerable Americana; but the influence of their dad's contemporaries is plain. Brian Wilson especially can be heard in the duo's melancholy melodies and relentless vocal harmonising.

Onstage, the look of the brothers and their band only adds to the suspicion that they have just awoken, Austin Powers-style, from 30 years of suspended animation. Justin, on guitar, even has Austin Powers's teeth and bowl- cut. Christiaan, on keyboards, is more like Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals, a resemblance that extends to strained falsettos, sci-fi psychedelia and loopy glam-rock operatics.

The Webb Brothers are not Super yet. Their debut album, Beyond the Biosphere, was intended only as a demo, and on most of the tracks, the Brothers give up once they've got as far as the first chorus. Still, even within these sketches, there are enough arresting phrases to keep you listening: "You'll never be alone again - `til I'm dead", "If I ever had a habit to break it's you", "I'm no quitter, I'm just lying down." Expect the follow-up album to be one that Webb Sr would be proud of.

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