Rock: The men from Uncool

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The Independent Culture
Air, Sean Lennon

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, WC2

John Lennon, 'Anthology'


Mercury Rev

Garage, N5

The coolest people in these postmodern times are often those who should, by all sane standards, be very uncool indeed. People like Jarvis Cocker and Beck - fashion icons who are so devoted to ill-fitting clothes that even their socks are the wrong size - or Abba and Tom Jones, who have been on the irony conveyor belt for so long they have travelled from uncool to cool-in-inverted-commas to cool.

Where are Air on this conveyor belt? The duo of Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin would have been risibly uncool a few years ago. The squelchy Moogs and jazzy easy-listening textures on Moon Safari (Source) would have been banished to a muzak tape, especially as the album booklet is decorated in Seventies comic strip designs, and the duo's best known track is called "Sexy Boy". Besides, Air are French. We can't take them entirely seriously, can we? Apparently we can. Moon Safari came out in January, and it's still got a place reserved on most critics' Albums of the Year lists, simply because its retro-futurism is so fluid and uplifting that it transcends kitsch. No other record makes machines sound so warm and organic.

At the Theatre Royal last Sunday, someone put the irony conveyor belt in reverse. Dunckel and Godin and their band were dressed in matching Persil white T-shirts and trousers. The first notes of the evening were the motif from Close Encounters of the Third Kind played on a bank of synthesisers by a man with very long, lank hair. I had to glance at my ticket stub to check that I hadn't accidentally gone to a Hawkwind concert in 1974.

Things went from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous. Air's seductive balladry mutated into Gary- Numan-goes-prog-rock, and the pulsing "Kelly, Watch The Stars!" was vandalised twice: its first half was hi-NRG disco, its second half was hardcore rock. Air must have judged that recreating the soft, other-worldly romance of Moon Safari would be too much of a challenge, so they copped out and kitsched up instead.

We got a taste of what we were missing when Air removed their tongues from their cheeks. There was folky sincerity on two songs from their elfin guest vocalist, Beth Hirsch, and there was some skilled theremin playing. The usual function of this instrument at rock concerts is to make random ghostly whistles. To use it to produce specific notes is unheard of.

Then the group slunk back to playing the ridiculous foreigner card, and introduced, via a vocoder, "a song speaking about love under water". So uncool they're cool? No, actually. Just uncool.

Air's opening act was Sean Lennon, who has sung on two albums so far this year. In May, he released Into the Sun (Grand Royal), and on Monday some more of his material hit the shops. The John Lennon Anthology (Capitol) is a four-CD boxed set of live tracks, alternative takes and Dylan parodies, plus Lennon's rendition of "Real Love" before the other Beatles got their hands on it a few years ago. You might want to go for the money-saving one-CD summary, Wonsaponatime, as there are very few songs here that aren't on the market in some form already. (Be honest, how often do you listen to the Beatles' Anthologies?) But anyone who does buy the whole set will be able to hear four-year-old Sean gurgling "With a Little Help from my Friends" and exclaiming, "I like it very loud," as his doting dad thrashes an electric guitar.

Nineteen years later, and the Beautiful Boy is a fairly beautiful man. Despite the fluffy bleached hair and the rectangular glasses he is facially such a perfect composite of his parents that it's hard to resist comparing him to them. And Sean doesn't help matters by waving and calling, "Hi, Mom" from the stage.

He certainly can't sing as well as his dad. In fact, he can't sing as well as his half-brother. But if you weren't judging him against his surname, you'd say he had star potential. His music is interesting and exploratory, and the wispy, hippy, lounge numbers have pretty tunes - before Sean stamps on a distortion pedal and breaks into a thunderous rock interlude. He still likes it very loud.

For now, Lennon Jr has too few focused pop songs and too many exercises in noodling. He needs to move beyond his numerous influences (his dad, commendably, is not the most obvious one) and find his own identity. I'd recommend that he gets out of his New York loft apartment for a few months and plays to gangs of drunken sailors while a Hamburg bar owner shouts "Mach shau!" at him.

Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs (V2) is one of this year's least rock'n'roll albums. Guitars are outnumbered by flugelhorns, harpsichords, violins and celestial choirs, and although the record pays homage to the Doors and The Band along the way, it sounds, if anything, like these two groups' long-lost collections of Christmas carols.

This lack of rock'n'rollishness isn't so remarkable until you see Mercury Rev live, and you discover that when the orchestration is stripped away, you're left with the rock'n'rolliest, New Yorkiest band in the world ... ever. They dress in black (please note, Air) and have cigarettes hanging off their lips. There's a guitarist called Grasshopper, with the shades and quiff of Stuart Sutcliffe. There's a bassist with a glazed stare that says, "We're American, we're serious about this, and we're cooler than you". And there's Jonathan Donahue, the singer/guitarist with a damaged, reptilian voice, a vampire's smile and glitter on his cheeks to match his guitar. To quote Michael Stipe, who wore the same make-up for his Radio 1 show two weeks ago: "The word is ... foxy."

The songs are imbued with just as much essence de rock as the men who play them. The album's elegiac melodies are in place, but onstage they are given the urban, Velvet Underground treatment. You ta ke flugelhorns. I'll take long, druggy guitar solos held in place by blaring organs and a pin-sharp rhythm section.