The Critics: Rock & pop: Where Eagle Eye doesn't dare

Eagle-Eye Cherry Empire, W12 Ma Sound Republic, W1
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The Independent Culture
This week's artistes occupy a dangerous region in the rock landscape. Both are balanced precariously between mainstream pop and alternative art. Both are intelligent and adult, but their debut albums are so accessible and hard to fault that they seem prematurely mature. In short, they are both on the border of dinner-party territory: exotic enough to let your guests know how discerning you are, but not so exotic that you can't listen to their records between courses without losing your appetite. And I'm not saying it's significant, but both are named after large birds.

The first of these two is Eagle-Eye Cherry, son of Don and brother of Neneh. Indeed, at Thursday's show, his first in England, the whole Cherry family tree was in blossom. On "Worried Eyes" he dueted with his sister - and Cher lookalike - Titiyo. And when he closed the show with "Desireless", written by his late father, Neneh could be spotted wiping tears from her eyes in the balcony.

His fine first album, also named Desireless (Polydor), can seem as suitable for a dinner party as Habitat candlesticks. Its acoustic guitar-led soul-rock has a leafy evening mood, and Cherry is never as fierily political as the comparable Ben Harper - although he does have as much seriousness and sensitivity. His lyrics return again and again to people facing up to the loss of their families because of their own greed and violence.

I was hoping that Eagle-Eye would reveal more of this raw, emotional side in concert. His support act was encouraging: Christopher Watkins, aka Preacher Boy. (It must be surreal to hear those two chatting backstage: "Afternoon, Preacher." "How are you, Eagle?"). Mr Boy has the Brylcreemed gentlemanliness of a Fun Lovin' Criminal, and he sings his whiskey-sodden, broken-down blues with a phlegmy croak that sounds like Lee Marvin burping. Cherry's own set didn't open quite so promisingly. A drummer with long Timotei hair struck up a beat, and two guitarists swapped bluesy Claptonian fretwork. After a minute or two, Cherry loped on - quite a presence, with his sculpted features and basketballer's physique - and two more MOR alarm-bells rang. First, he was wearing white trousers. Second, he slapped palms with the fans at the front. Ben Harper would not approve.

Possibly because he spent his formative years in Sweden, Cherry is unnaturally fond of all the gestures of 1980s stadium soft-rock. There's a "Wo, yeah" call-and-response interlude in one song and a wave-your-hands-in-the-air interlude in another. During "Conversation", the percussionist strides down to the front of the stage, exchanges a high-five with Cherry and plays a bongo solo. The other musicians join in, and what began as a touching song about a man having to explain his crimes to his young son speeds up into a Clapton-and-Collins-at-the-Albert-Hall, put-down-your-champagne, stand-up-in-your- box muso jam. And my patented Jam Session Paradox was illustrated: the more improvised guitar solos there are in a gig, the less spontaneous it is.

After weeks of touring, Cherry and his band had worn all their grooves smooth, and the show, which was being filmed for television, had a sterile, TV-studio feel. "When Mermaids Cry" was Eagle-Eye meets the Eagles, and when he played some synth on "Permanent Tears", you could have closed your eyes and pictured Dire Straits. Put a tape of this gig on at your dinner party and your credibility will go down faster than the Chardonnay.

Our second dinner-party contender is a one-named Icelandic beauty whose music fits up-to-the-minute club beats to cabaret jazz melodies, and who performs with dramatic mime-school gestures while wearing silver trainers and an ill-fitting, high-necked wedding gown. All of which adds up to one thing: before you know it, she'll be moaning in every interview about all the lazy journalists who compare her to Bjork.

She'll have a point. For all their myriad similarities, there is more to separate Ma and Bjork than an acute accent and an umlaut. Not that it's necessarily in Ma's interest to dwell on the distinctions. Her album, Universal (Tommy Boy), is consistently classy and catchy, but less explosively creative than Bjork's work. And her English lyrics, while certainly better than anything I could write in Icelandic, are trite compared to Bjork's. All in all, Universal is more like Nicolette and Moloko than Ms Gudmundsdottir. Ma's licking vocals recall Eartha Kitt and Billie Holiday, and the backing is one part disco-funk, one part drum'n'bass rattle. If you judge her as a commercial pop act rather than a groundbreaking artist, she's terrific.

On Monday, Ma was in a short support slot, and her performance seemed restrained and muted next to the album. Her band - "all from icy Iceland" - couldn't match Universal's frothy joie de vivre, but they're nearly there in the visual department. They wear a uniform of flared and pinstriped Seventies suits. And Meidur Juniusdottir herself, to use her less snappy full name, could be Uma Thurman's better-looking sister. Ma hasn't quite got off the ground yet, but in a couple of years she could well be moaning in interviews that just because she's a gorgeous blonde pop queen whose one-word name begins with an 'M' and ends with an 'a', there's no need for lazy journalists to label her as the new Madonna. At the end of her set, people were either calling her name, or calling for more.

Eagle-Eye Cherry: Manchester Academy (0161 275 4815), tonight; Wolverhampton Civic Hall (01902 312030), Mon; Leeds T & C (0113 280 0100), Tues; Glasgow Barrowlands (0141 552 4601), Wed. Ma: Glasgow G2 (0141 353 3111), tonight.

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