The increasingly Beautiful South

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The Independent Culture
WATCHING The Beautiful South at Brixton Academy, you think you've stumbled in on a rehearsal. The three singers have that just-haven't-got-out-of-bed look. Paul Heaton, the Paul Merton of pop, is reading from a lyric sheet on a music stand.

Maybe they're feeling complacent. Their "best of" album, Carry on up the Charts, has carried on up to the top, past the Beatles' Live at the BBC. ("Hey, guess what," deadpans Heaton. "You know the group who do `Love Me Do'? Yeah, we're better than them, apparently.") They know that even their tuneless songs are tuneful by others' standards. Most remarkable are the vocals. Heaton sounds like Jimmy Nail would if Jimmy Nail could really sing.

Not only do the harmonies warm up the audience, eventually they even warm up the performers. By the end, the whole band are reeling around the stage. You think you're going to the first night, it starts off as a rehearsal, and turns into an end-of-tour party.

Massive Attack don't attack, they nuzzle. There's nothing violent about the loping bass, lush string samples, and Space Invader sound effects that fill London's Galtymore Ballroom on Thursday.

And they aren't very massive either. The band are a three-strong core orbited by guest singers and rappers. Tonight, however, there is no Tracey Thorn, no Shara Nelson, and no Tricky. Daddy G stands in for him, but if he's going to rap, "They call me Tricky for particular reason," he should add: "The reason is that they've mistaken me for someone else." Present and correct, however, are Horace Andy, with his call-to-prayer vibrato, the like of which most of us can achieve only by singing while hitting ourselves repeatedly in the epiglottis, and Nicolette, with her show-stealing, snake-charming voice.

The "multi-media" consists of screens showing a computer-animated person made of oranges (symbolism fans love this: it's the Eurochild, munching its way into the Common Market). The show is not far off a school disco, except that you're more likely to spot Bjork. So, Massive Attack is not the most apposite name for the band tonight, although it does sound better than Middling Nuzzle.

Tom Jones is trying to fool us. His new album, The Lead and How to Swing It (ZTT), is produced by the trendiest names around. He's funking, he's rapping, he's reminding interviewers that he used to hang out with Janis Joplin. And he has the worst album cover since Roxy Music split up: a model in an itsy-bitsy bikini, grasping a monstrous pneumatic drill (symbolism fans, I'll leave this one to you). Is he a contemporary artist?

I'm not fooled. Of those fans at the Hammersmith Apollo on Thursday, almost all were middle-aged, pensioners, or as old as Tom himself. And what they want is Jones swivelling away to the "classics": "Delilah" (never has murder sounded so jolly) and "What's New, Pussycat" (Does he really want a woman with a "pussycat nose"? Should he be admitting it in public?). Jones may have a dollop of showmanship, a voice that shatters mountains, and a youthful band, but he's not a cutting-edge pop star.

Or so I thought. Then a hammering bassline kicks off "A Girl Like You", a hard-rock track that leaves the audience looking like residents of Madame Tussauds. He wins them back with "It's Not Unusual", followed by Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?". It was all a double bluff. Tom is cool, after all.

Beautiful South: Blackpool Empress, 0253 27786, tonight; Humberside Ice Rink, 0482 25252, Mon & Tues. Tom Jones: Cardiff IA, 0222 224488, Mon.