Rock: The Space boys: taboo-breakers, or is it all just a big cabaret act?

IF YOU switched on The Chart Show just as it was finishing two Saturdays ago - and it is annoying the way they keep changing what time it's on - you will have seen an excerpt from the new Space video, "The Ballad of Tom Jones", in which Tommy Scott duetted with Catatonia's Cerys Matthews as he dangled off the edge of a storm-battered cliff. "I still want to cut off your nuts!" bawled Matthews and, before you had time to bundle any small children out of the room, the credits ended and the adverts began. To my mind, this makes Space every bit as taboo-breaking as the Prodigy. To most other people's minds, however, the clip will confirm that Space are just Aqua with guitars, intent on sabotaging the credibility of their every lyric by inserting a reference to murder, movie monsters, the FBI, the Mafia and/or their own zaniness.

But Space never claimed to be serious rock artists. If you're after a premillennial odyssey through the wastes of drug-infested depression, Space is not the place. They're a cabaret act and proud of it. At the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Wednesday, Scott had not only swapped his old scally anorak for a silk shirt and tie; he'd even gone so far as to introduce his Jim Morrison-style nest of hair to a comb. His band are a vaudeville troupe, and that doesn't stop them having three times the vivacity, variety, originality and talent of some of their gloomier, trendier contemporaries.

Scott's image has been spruced up to suit the material from Space's forthcoming album, Tin Planet (Gut). The cocktail-bar romance to be heard in "Female of the Species" has flourished; and Scott, following the recruitment of a stand-in bassist, is free to roam the stage like the postmodern crooner he is. "I'm the man who would kill for love!" he cries on "Begin Again" - the sound of John Barry at a bullfight - and in doing so he vaults to somewhere near the top of the ever-lengthening list of people who could write a better Bond theme than Sheryl Crow.

And Scott is just one of the three disparate personalities who rule the band, all of whom seemed to be having the time of their lives on Wednesday. His Dean Martin-isms alone might turn Space into a Godzilla- obsessed version of the Mike Flowers Pops; but Jamie Murphy, guitarist and co-vocalist, is on hand to provide some rock'n'roll sleaze, and to hop on and off the bass drum whenever he gets bored. Franny Griffiths, meanwhile, is Space's own personal Chemical Brother, there to give his colleagues a mid-set rest by single-handedly conducting a rave. Once you take into account the frenetic lighting and back projections, a surprise guest appearance from Cerys Matthews was just the icing on a cake that had enough tiers for a Mafia wedding.

Space were lucky to get Catatonia's singer on their record. For that matter, Catatonia were lucky to get her on theirs. Their new album, International Velvet (Blanco Y Negro), has more than its share of sparkling melodies, but the arrangements don't stand out from those of a dozen other Britpop janglers. No band should have a refrain that goes "Every day when I wake up I thank the Lord I'm Welsh" when the music beneath is as Blur-ily English as you can get.

Still, if you can't feel your heart speeding up as Matthews gushes her way through "Mulder and Scully" ("Skull Lee") or "Road Rage" ("Roe Dr- r-r-rage"), then you can't have a heart at all. Her vocals are a delicious mix of the raucously hoarse and the breathlessly sweet, and her live performance is everything her recorded self promised it would be. In London's Electric Ballroom on Thursday, the whole irrepressible band looked as if there were nowhere they'd rather be than on stage, and Matthews was a true diva, hurling herself into the material and singing herself to the brink of collapse (although the tight dress and the wine she was swigging could have had something to do with it). She must be near the top of the ever- lengthening list of people who could sing a better Bond theme than Sheryl Crow.

At Camden Dingwalls on Monday were Spacehog (unfortunately for this column's thematic unity, neither the Space Monkeys nor Spacemaid were playing this week), a Leeds fourpiece who are doing so well in America that REM's Michael Stipe lends a vocal on their forthcoming Chinese Album (Warner). Stipe also enlisted their rhythm guitarist to appear in Velvet Goldmine, his glam-rock film, but that was a little too appropriate: Spacehog are such a pastiche that they could have been assembled especially for the movie. They have nothing in their record collection, it seems, but T Rex, Queen, the New York Dolls, and the many David Bowie singles with the words "space" or "star" in the title.

But if they haven't put in the hours at the record library, it's because they've been cooped up in the rehearsal studio, honing their performance until it's as exhilaratingly flash, colourful and precisely co-ordinated as a Red Arrows loop-the-loop. Having all four members sing harmony vocals while playing their instruments at top speed is a feat of concentration in itself, but Spacehog can ham it up at the same time: the drummer, for instance, belatedly celebrates Chinese New Year by pounding a full-sized gong and tipping over his kit at the end of the show. Kula Shaker and Ocean Colour Scene take note: if you're going to be this old-fashioned, you've got to be this much fun.

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