Who wants to listen to the moans of Jones?

ROCK
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Is Stephen Jones the new Bertrand Russell? At BabyBird's concert at the London Astoria last Sunday, Jones demonstrated the Cretan Paradox, the confusion of plain language and metalanguage. "Are you liars?" he called, and, pop-concert crowds being what they are, everyone shouted back: "Yes!"

Jones has observed a similar herd instinct in the record-buying public. With "You're Gorgeous" and "Candy Girl", he has proven that if you write a chorus that is simple and catchy enough, people don't care if the rest of the song is a misanthropic string of rhyming metaphors and shock tactics that rely on the word "Jesus". This may be a victory for Jones, but it's a sad one, and it has left him believing that pop songs must be worthless things. "Jesus Christ, I wish I'd never written it," he moans in response to the audience's applause after "Candy Girl". His thesis is that pop music is a simple-minded con, and that pop concerts are primitive rites of stimulus and conditioned response. And he has a point.

It's not a new point, however. Anyone with an IQ higher than Celine Dion's must recognise the depressing formulism of so much of the music industry's output. The question is what you do with this information. Do you put in the hard work necessary to challenge or transcend the conventions, just as Beck - whose recent concert Jones reviewed in the Guardian - does so magnificently? Or do you settle for the banality of the lowest common denominator, fix a sneer on your face to convince yourself that you still have some integrity, and then collect your money at the end of the night?

Pathetically, Jones chooses the latter approach. "You don't know what you're here for, do you?" he complains to the crowd. We might say the same about him. Why else would he lumber through a detached, lifeless performance, waking up only to abuse his fans (a custom which is already as familiar as those he professes to despise)? His backing musicians, a rudimentary lounge-indie combo, repeat their undernourished riffs over and over with no great style or effervescence, revealing along the way that "July" is a facsimile of "You're Gorgeous", and that "Bug In a Breeze" relies on the same listing of whimsical figures of speech as "Candy Girl".

There's a third course of action open to those who consider pop music to be a sham, and that is to stop making it. It would be a pity if Jones chose that path, because he does have talent, even if he is infuriatingly proud of wasting it.

A glance at the articles written about Texas on the release of their No 1 album, White On Blonde (Mercury), will leave you in doubt as to the line peddled by both their record company and by their singer, Sharleen Spiteri: Texas have "changed and moved on". Not only have they reinvented themselves as Chris Evans-endorsed, hip-hop-influenced scenesters, but they have also admitted that their previous albums were "competent rather than really good", and that "people were fed up with the same old Texas".

No arguments there. But it's a dangerous tactic to disown your past so categorically, especially if you are still very much "the same old Texas" beneath the production's cosmetic alterations.

The audience at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tuesday bobbed and clapped only to the time-honoured likes of "I Don't Want a Lover", but there was very little to choose between old songs and new. You could call all of tonight's music tame and efficient, or you could just say that it sounded much like Texas's pre-TFI Friday albums, and leave it to Spiteri and Mercury Records to admit what they think of those. I wouldn't go as far to say that the band are in danger of being sued by the Lone Star State for defamation of character, but they are still playing blue-eyed soul. Except that Spiteri doesn't have blue eyes, and isn't very soulful.

Still, to quote almost everyone who is struggling to be charitable about Texas, she does have a good voice. As a backing singer she'd be an asset to anyone else's band. As a frontwoman she is charismatic only in comparison with the anonymous group behind her. She has mentioned that her sister can sing as well as she can, and that her bandmates josh about how they could draft in one sibling to replace the other without anyone noticing. Having seen Texas live, I'd say that all of the members could be swapped for session musicians with just as little impact.

But the week wasn't all bad. On Thursday, some of that parallel universe, wherein James fulfilled their potential and challenged REM and U2 for rock supremacy, leaked into the Shepherd's Bush Empire. Getting a galloping "Sit Down" out of the way first, they put on a show that surpassed their return-to-form album, Whiplash (Fontana), and was brimful of life-affirming yet richly experimental anthems. I can't remember when I was last so breathless to hear how each song could possibly top the last. Would it be a New Wave/ dance crossover? Would the focus be on the punky bass or the muted fiddle? Or would the seven-piece band - one man is on the payroll purely to play the maracas and wear a smart jacket - be stripped down to synthesiser, some remarkably subtle drumming, and Tim Booth's earnest yodel?

Perhaps he shouldn't have shown off the chip on his narrow shoulder by slipping in the words, "Haven't you seen enough of all these cool young bands, trying to act so tough, ripping off the Sixties?" But tonight I had to answer his question in the affirmative. Whichever of their numerous musical styles James were tackling, they did so with intelligence, heart, ambition, and a singer who did a camp, squiggly dance like an octopus being sucked down a giant plughole. Apart from a disappointing interpretation of "She's a Star" and a couple of selections which sunk under the weight of their psychedelic excesses, this uplifting show's only fault was Booth's ill-advised solution to the problem of thinning hair. Sadly, even if one swings around a megaphone, not everyone with a shaven head resembles Michael Stipe.

Comments