ROCK / Sinead sings Evita

WHAT DO you do when you're an international star who can't get a hit, and a tabloid demon in the Scargill and Gaddafi class, and the time comes for that famously difficult third album? Well, if you're Sinead O'Connor, you sign up producer Phil Ramone and a 47-piece orchestra, and wrap your contentious larynx around a sackful of standards, previously made famous by a gamut of legendary women singers; from Julie London to Alison Moyet, via Ella Fitzgerald and Elaine Paige (well, Julie Covington did 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' first, but I suppose Paige's name was more likely to cause outrage).

No one need worry about Sinead having gone soft. Before Am I Not Your Girl? has even hit the streets, she's already appalled the guardians of our moral propriety at the Sun by clothing the first single from it in an Amnesty International photo of a murdered Guatemalan street child. Like many of O'Connor's grand gestures, this attempt to shock the world out of its complacency leaves her open to reasoned as well as knee-jerk criticism, but that has never stopped her before and it doesn't now. This album's sting in the tail, all the more arresting for being preceded by a hammy orchestral reprise of the aforementioned Evita anthem, is a quietly apocalyptic piece of holier-than-thou spoken word ('Can you really say you're not in pain . . . like me?'), which concludes that 'Then, or now, there's only ever been one liar, and it's the Holy Roman Empire'.

We are then dealing with a middle-of-the-road performer - in the sense that a psychotic van- driver heading straight towards you is a middle-of-the-road performer. The surprise is that apart from the over-wrought and hyper- intense single 'Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home', the renditions here are very subdued; more marks of respect than anything else. 'These are the songs I grew up listening to,' Sinead informs us (not for her Little Jimmy Osmond) - 'the songs that made me want to be a singer'. Her interpretative approach to primed and loaded material like Marilyn Monroe's 'I Want to Be Loved by You' and Billie Holiday's 'Gloomy Sunday' is mostly just to sing it very quietly.

Purists will no doubt be grateful for this unexpected show of restraint, but it's a shame that the battle of wills between O'Connor and her orchestra that 'Success Has Made a Failure' promises never really materialises. This album was a good idea, and there is nothing really bad on it, but the effect of the whole thing - concluding fireworks notwithstanding - is rather muted. The most shocking thing about it is the realisation prompted by the straight- faced appropriation of Rice and Lloyd-Webber's lament of a dictatoress ('And as for fortune and as for fame, I never invited them in; though it seemed to the world they were all I desired'): that Sinead O'Connor might actually have a sense of humour.

Now that's what I call a light- show: two standard lamps on either side of the drumkit, and fairy lights draped all over the amplifiers. Unfortunately, this cunning ambience-establishment ploy on the part of Bostonian psychological landscape artists Throwing Muses hits a small technical hitch. The lamp on the left refuses to go on. A procession of road-crew luminaries make their way on and off the Town and Country Club stage, battling vainly with the unaccustomed technical simplicity of it all. Eventually, to ironic cheers from the crowd, they change the bulb.

This all looks a bit fussy, but the band's performance is admirably free of affectation and clutter. They are now a trio, centred more firmly than ever on the resilient writing, singing and guitar- playing talents of Kristin Hersh (harmonising stepsister Tanya Donelly having recently set off to form her own band, Belly, with bass-player Fred Abong). Stalwart drummer David Narcizo is augmented by the spring-loaded bassist Bernard Georges - an unusual and welcome non-Wasp presence in an outfit of this nature - they are a compact unit, with no holes left in their sound by the reduction in staff.

They open with a jaunty instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix's 'Manic Depression'. This is a bad idea insofar as it leaves out the singing, which is generally the best thing about Jimi Hendrix songs, but a good one in that it provides an upbeat toe-dip into the deep sub-conscious waters wherein Hersh's songs are wont to splash about. Life for this woman has not been a bowl of cherries; as well as coping with a rare long-term bi-polar personality disorder, she has recently faced crippling business litigation with an ex-manager, and lost a battle for custody of her eldest child.

The impression she creates onstage is above all one of strength. A slight figure in a faux-naif cut- off denim outfit, she doesn't move about much. There is the occasional shake of the head from side to side, but that is about it. Her voice overcomes a disconcerting similarity to Stevie Nicks' in its middle register by way of pure high notes and the occasional throaty snarl. Her guitar-playing is sometimes just generic American amp-fuzz, but also incorporates strange clear dribbles of individual notes reminiscent of Neil Young, and every now and then mutates into the weirdest high-speed bluegrass.

The band's most obvious moments are their two current single 'Firepile' and last year's 'Counting Backwards', but they are most effective in slower, quieter moments like 'Two Steps', when space is left for a little light to creep in.

'Am I Not Your Girl?' (Ensign CHEN 26) is out tomorrow; its making is the subject of a programme on BBC2 at 7.30pm on Saturday. Throwing Muses play Nottingham Trent Poly (0602 476725) tonight, Norwich Waterfront (0603 766266) tomorrow, and elsewhere thereafter (details 081-870 0924).

(Photograph omitted)