ROCK / Short, sharp and sweet: Joseph Gallivan watches the Lemonheads at London Subterania

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For an American power trio that have never really made it in the UK, the Lemonheads have been around for a very long time (six years, five albums), but this summer they surged ahead of the slop-rock pack when they released It's a Shame about Ray. In a timely thinning of the grunge soup (as served up lately by anyone with a flannel shirt, two friends and a Sub Pop record) Lemonhead honcho Evan Dando switched styles from his usual thrashy punk to a writerly, more audible type of pop, rooted in Sixties soul and Seventies country rock.

To reinforce the point, he wears a Gram Parsons T-shirt (a name that's been taken in vain rather a lot this year as artists attempt to place themselves in the rock tradition that punk blew apart). With no more than a cute smile and a 'How're doin'?', Lemonhead launch into 'Stove', 'Confetti' and 'Mallocup', three little blasts of guitar pop run together without stopping. Which is exactly how those immutable punk rockers the Ramones kept their live audience over the years.

'Confetti' is typical Dando. 'He kinda shoulda sorta woulda loved her if he could've' he sang, 'he'd rather be alone than pretend'. The simple basslines, the steady drumming and stinging cymbal punctuation set off Dando's voice nicely, which is smooth and plain in the manner of Michael Stipe of REM, and carries passion in the same way: geeky kid gets het up, raises his voice and pleads. He can hold a note, one per word, without ever getting into the fancy stuff.

On the tiny stage the bassist had space for just two steps this way and two steps back, but Dando was happy rooted to the spot, kissing the mike, strumming his electric guitar and bouncing on his heels. Lemonheads songs are short and invariably sweet. 'Rudderless' came and went, a tale of lovers' confusion that saves its singalong refrain until the end: 'Ship without a rudder's like a ship without a rudder's like . . .' and so on, followed by one minute and 56 seconds of classic new wave pop song called 'Alison's Starting to Happen'. He claims it was inspired by the experience of watching a friend's friend (Alison) taking the drug Ecstasy. As the drug began to take effect, the title is what Dando shouted, but the next day he took the phrase and used it as the starting point for a love song: 'Alison's growing a Mohawk, Alison's starting to happen, to me-eeeee]'. Purists might find all this distasteful, but the young audience, for whom punk was just another scene on The Rock and Roll Years, loved every second.

The new single 'It's a Shame about Ray' had a similar effect. No one (not even the songwriter) knows who Ray is, but this vagueness coupled with his simple, innocent tone of voice proved quite affecting. Everyone knows someone whom it's a shame about, even if it's just oneself. The Lemonheads turned out love song after love song - the best being 'My Drug Buddy' (full of the atmosphere of a rainy East Coast town, something the British love in American bands like The Replacements and Dinosaur Jnr), and later 'Bit Part' ('I wanna bit part in your life, / A walk on would be fine') - all remarkably well received in the mosh pit (where they stage dive).

The encore consisted mainly of funny songs, such as 'Being Around', part serenade, part children's song ('If I was a cheque, would you let me bounce,/ Up and down, in your bank account?'). A blast of chaotic rock, 'Hate Your Friend', ended the show, but Dando stayed on alone to fiddle with the Marshall stacks for a final minute, filling the house with bubbling feedback, before slipping away. Gram Parsons would have been proud.

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