Rock & Pop: The Belles, the Belles, they play for us

Belle and Sebastian Shepherd's Bush Empire Cornelius LAZ Sinead Lohan Jazz Cafe Neotropic: Mr Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock (Ninja Tune, CD)
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The Independent Culture
The choice of Elliot Smith as the support act to Belle & Sebastian, Glasgow's current indie darlings, was always going to make for an interesting pairing. Both have been compared to all the usual suspects: Nick Drake, Donovan, and even, - and even (just B&S) - to the Velvet Underground's serener incarnations.

Smith, one man with a gee-tar, was a powerhouse of righteous anger and decisiveness. In fact, he was so to such an extent that the headlining septet, a retiring bunch who let their quiescent songs do the talking, seemed momentarily nonplussed.

But Stuart Murdoch and band soon proved that the clear folk lines of their new album, The Boy with the Arab Strap (Jeepster), made for a winning formula, charming in its diffidence. The dynamics of B&S have shifted slightly since the days of Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister to allow for a greater variety of sound, including strings and shared vocal leads. As revelatory songs like "Stars of Track and Field" and "Is It Wicked Not to Care?" show, B&S are best when they're at their most fragile. And even then, they're like the Smiths on an upswing.

Keigo Oyamada was a child star in Japan until puberty struck, when he reinvented himself as the all-round mastermind behind Cornelius. Named after the only personable simian in Planet of the Apes, Cornelius offer the kind of bricolage experience that delights Japanese audiences. At a sell-out concert in Tokyo's Budokan stadium, audiences bought US $50 programmes with 3D glasses and miniature radios to hear the extra backing tracks being broadcast by a local station.

Cornelius had left the radios behind for their ramjammed London show. But this did little to dim a rapturous welcome. While Cornelius's latest album Fantasma (Matador) contains the band's kernel - a whirlwind of electronic sounds and thrashing guitars shaped into three-minute pop songs - it does little justice to the live experience. Beneath an inspired backdrop of scratch video, cutesy animal cartoons, and Elvis movies with Japanese subtitles, guitarist-vocalist Oyamada and his three colleagues start up an electronic drone interspersed with guitar solos, over which they shout the numbers one to five. A code? Kraftwerk with axes?

Described as the missing link between hip-hop, punk and Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds, Cornelius jump through hoops in their effort to defy meaning with a sheer mass of material which includes, during some delirious minutes, a cover of "Love Me Tender" played with suitable tremulando on a Theremin. Exploding, plastic and inevitable? Cornelius clearly have ambition.

One wonders what Oyamada might do were he to lever Sinead Lohan into his digital mix. At a time when others are breaking into folk, it seems that Lohan - an apple-cheeked, dreadlocked 27-year-old from Cork - is breaking out. For a singer-songwriter who spent her developing years following a straight-ahead Celtic style, Lohan has progressed by leaps and bounds to embrace a style that now incorporates a bluesy, trip- hop feel. This is not dictated, one feels, by the expediency of musical fads. Her second album, No Mermaid (Grapevine) contains nothing forced or misplaced, fusing the subtleties of her trademark voice with a stronger and more dynamic sense of rhythm than ever before. It works live, too. Opening her seven-date British tour at London's Jazz Cafe, Lohan was alert to the nuances that her new songs demanded - everything from gentle atmospherics to an intensity more associated with Delta blues.

With a four-piece band providing a flexible backing, Lohan kicked off with "Disillusioned". They're not the easiest songs, and it's this, as much as Lohan's ease on stage, that helps fuel their rise. "Loose Ends" and "Out of the Woods", two beautifully melancholic songs as wide as prairie skies, show what the singer does best: communicate, with the minimum of fuss.

So, too, does Neotropic's girl wonder Riz Maslen, although the effects of her haunted, electronic vistas are somewhat different. On her latest album since 1996's 15 Levels of Magnification (NTone), Maslen's soundscapes have grown in size, taking on some truly elaborate soundshifting forms. It would be easy to write about Maslen in gender terms alone - not many women are found in the studio- and-DJ world she inhabits - but that would be a cop-out.

Mr Brubaker's Strawberry Alarm Clock - don't be deceived by the Sixties- ish title - is a deft work, combining a real feeling for sonic depth and texture with compositional nous. Although Maslen has added human voices for the first time - in the shape of Paul Jason Fredericks - these aren't songs in any ordinary sense. Dark, eerie and multi-layered, Neotropic's latest renderings are the next logical step on from the likes of Massive Attack or Portishead. Tricky stuff.

Sinead Lohan: Warwick Arts Ctr, (01203 524524), Mon; Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms (01705 863911), Tues; Preston Adelphi (01772 897961), Thurs; Southfields Customs House (0191 454 1234), Fri.