POP / Cagoule for cats: Beautiful South, Clapham Grand

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The Independent Online
For eight years now, Paul Heaton has been stuffing the charts with smart songs while refusing to play the pop star. He hasn't budged from the Housemartins' original independent record label, Go] Discs, he's still holed up in his terraced house in Hull, and his songs are about as fashionable as a cagoule. If you stuck him in a one-man rock 'n' roll identity parade, you still wouldn't pick him out. These days, he bears a closer resemblance to Ron Dixon, Brookside's surly middle-aged loser, than the grinning fluffy-haired Housemartin he once was.

Ever a band of contrasts, the Beautiful South's four albums to date have consistently plied the Housemartins' trick of laying profoundly unsentimental lyrics over the dandiest of happy-go-lucky tunes. 'To die together would be worth a try,' (copyright Morrissey) runs a line in 'Worthless Lie' as Heaton and new girl Jacqueline Abbott coo the most gooey of harmonies together.

Abbott, the near-identivoice replacement for Briana Corrigan, was apparently 'discovered' singing in someone's back garden at a party in St Helens. This says as much about the band's attitude as their patent attempts not to dance. Until the show's climax, Heaton's dance routines consisted chiefly of an exaggerated stamping action, followed by a circular grind of the right foot, which upon closer inspection proved to be the quasi-rhythmical stubbing out of a cigarette.

For a songster whose lungs are as dependent on cigarette smoke as his, it's a wonder he can sing at all. Yet his throat, blessed with a honeyed larynx, offered up a rare vocal precision, emerging from the band's musical blender as the dominant instrument in a lively assault. The three-piece horn section injected unexpected verve into the tracks that had seemed turgid on the new album, Miaow, and Heaton even managed to pull off a down-tempo send-up of Kool and the Gang's 'Get Down on It'.

'What a marvellous little amphitheatre you've got,' was just about his first and last attempt at establishing an audience rapport. But such a committed Northern soul boy as Heaton (remember the Housemartins' London 0 Hull 4) was never likely to unwind in the theatrical splendour of London's Clapham Grand.

Cliche country is not for him ('When you see a crowd I see a flock,' he once sang), so he was probably not best pleased by the lone lighter that started to sway in the front row during the encore, an image that could not be less apposite for a band whose anti-posturing lends them more to the pub on the corner than the stadium out of town.

But then the Beautiful South are all things to all people. Purveyors of couply love songs (this audience boasted an abnormally high ratio of pregnant women), and yet cunning ironists at a stroke. Or, in the case of the soon-to-be-released single, Fred Neil's classic 'Everybody's Talkin' ', masters of yet another candy-coated pop song.

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