ROCK / Tres bien ensemble, tres bien ensemble

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The Independent Culture
WHILE MOST rappers opt for short, marketable names (silliest example: Def Jef), Me'Shell NdegeOcello goes for the full mouthful-of-toffee her parents chose for her. Her first LP, Plantation Lullabies (Maverick), has been praised for its uncompromising, jazz-inflected musicianship, with echoes of Funkadelic's muzzy drawl and Defunkt's hyper-taut cocaine panic. That's to say, it celebrates some of the most complex black pop ever - a point not lost on the very hip black crowd at the Jazz Cafe.

Surrounded by musicians a foot taller and wider than her, Me'shell is focused, relaxed, wryly amused, and in total control - able at any moment to become one of them (to play a snatch of keyboard, or grab her bass and spar with the main bass player). The songs are good - subtle, honed, with few primary colours. The players like to break into jazz-funk flurries, but there's no waste matter.

She seems loth to choose between playing the music and playing the star (for someone signed to Madonna's record label, this is refreshingly old-fashioned). Yet, as a lesbian single mother with a commitment to black community politics and a line in unashamedly sensual songwriting, she embodies a range of ideas that could condense into stardom. Her look will help - a cropped head is a great focus for non-conformist rage. For now, too much energy is dissipated in bass-practice and respect for history. If Madonna's instincts are right, this won't always be so.

When gloomy white-boy pop fails to cohere, there's no fallback, no way to save face. You can't just shrug and say, 'Never mind, no bones broken, it was just a laugh,' because fun is exactly what they're trying to avoid. On record (Hex, on Circa, reviewed last week) Bark Psychosis cultivate a clammy menace: pretty guitars and keyboards offset by deep dub bass. Every song is a bit slower than expected, and the result is a mesmerising sluggishness, a sound on the brink of falling apart.

Live at the Bloomsbury Theatre, it falls apart. Moments work well; anything longer, and the band loses direction. Mikes turned up to catch the occasional whispered vocals clog the sound up - while the group's demeanour on stage is, at best, likeably aimless.

Bark Psychosis have good reason to be untogether. A power-cut delays the start of the show, and the film they'd hoped to open with is cancelled. Nor are they their usual selves - there's a leather-trousered session-man on bass. Even so, two songs are impressive - the more so for being at odds with their morose recorded work. One is sculpted round a machine-beat so fast and loud it would have wrecked any other band's hopes of mastering it. The other deploys a battery of wittering beatboxes, round which they at last carve the evocative, half-formed howl they've been after all night. Perhaps they should have taken a hint from the power-cut, and performed in total darkness. Unable to see them bobbing amiably, you could pretend the music played itself. You could pretend Bark Psychosis didn't detract from their own atmosphere.

At the National Film Theatre on Thursday, an unlikely project, combining music, film and the written word, sells out. A craggy old man with the ruins of an Etonian accent reads passages from a murder novel, and answers questions. Members of the group Gallon Drunk provide soft, angular accompaniment, on video and live, before closing the show with four songs of their own. The old man is

the cult crime writer Derek Raymond; he comes across as an eccentric innocent, a little astonished by his following among the Goth night-people. During the questions, a real drunk, noting Gallon Drunk's debt to the Birthday Party, asks a poorly framed question about the glamorisation of violence. People hiss. Raymond says he hates violence, and the chairman studiously avoids taking the follow-up question. The drunk sways resentfully and sits down. Actually, Raymond's writing, which is lyrical and compelling, does glamorise violence (so did the Birthday Party). But a better question might be, whence our undoubted thirst for such glamour? Gallon Drunk find glamour in the abstract textured roar of amplified guitar with heavy reverb; they favour a precise, artful, faintly dour swamp-rockabilly that's far less unglued than the Birthday Party's version, for all its loud similarities. In a less comfortable venue they'd be great.

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