Until now, Hannon - aka The Divine Comedy - has always been clean-shaven and sharp-suited, as befitted his foppish-sophisticate persona. So it makes sense that some commentators see the beard as part of his process of dropping the Noel Coward facade and revealing the Real Neil. His latest record, A Short Album About Love (Setanta), is certainly less tongue-in- cheek than its predecessors: there are no songs on it about Mr Benn, the children's cartoon character, for a start. But behind the Phil Spector shades, Hannon's eyebrow is still raised. "If you were a tree," he croons on "If...", "I could carve my name into your side / And you would not cry / Because trees don't cry." This is how Steve Coogan must have hoped that Tony Ferrino would sound.
The constant, mordant undercutting of emotion is off-putting if you're listening to The Divine Comedy at home, but in the context of the Royal Festival Hall, it is just part of the entertainment. On Thursday, Hannon and his band were joined by the 26-piece Brunel Ensemble, a bubble machine, a fairy-lit backdrop and a battery of retina-burning spotlights. Even the roadie wore a suit and tie. In the heightened reality of theatre, it is impossible not to be caught up and carried away by the songs, irony and all.
Hannon has remade pop in his own image. He can't be bracketed with any of his contemporaries, except, to a degree, Pulp and the Mike Flowers Pops. Yet his fame is getting to the point where people now say, "Have you seen Father Ted? The Divine Comedy wrote the theme tune," instead of, "Have you heard of The Divine Comedy? They wrote the theme tune to Father Ted." This tune, which appears on last year's Casanova as "Songs of Love", was sadly missed at the RFH. Several songs towards the end could have been dropped in its favour.
Still, there were enough lush melodies to be going on with. "Someone" should put Hannon in line to compose the next Bond theme. "Lucy" sets the poetry of Wordsworth to the riff from "Pinball Wizard". "A Woman of the World" is a brash exercise in "Big Spender"-style burlesque. And "Frog Princess" fuses all of Hannon's romanticism, bitterness, melodrama and wit into one magnificent whole. It also saw him overcoming his awkwardness. Halfway through the song he jumped offstage to kiss a fan, and he risked damaging his shiny grey suit by falling to his knees at the finale, his baritone climbing to a falsetto, while the orchestra worked themselves into a fortissimo haze. And the beard? He shaved it off during the interval. The man's a star.
Jimi Tenor took geeky easy listening in another direction or seven at London's chock-full 100 Club on Tuesday. I reckon that every music critic is allowed to play the Haven't-A-Clue-What-To-Make-Of-It card twice a year, and I'm going to use up my first now. My only Tenor theory is that three or four years ago some journalist noticed how notions of fashion were mutating, and wrote a parodic prediction of what kind of pop artist would be considered cool in 1997. I'll make him look like Radiohead's Thom Yorke except with Dame Edna specs, a black sequinned suit, and a boxer's Lonsdale belt, the journalist must have sniggered. I'll make his primary instrument a cheesey, two-tier Farfisa organ, fit only for cabaret spots in a seaside bed and breakfast. And best of all, I'll make him Finnish. Somehow, this chimera sprung to life, and Jimi Tenor's Intervision (Warp) is the trendiest album of the year so far.
His deceptively simple, mellow, lo-fi music encompasses jazz, funk, futuristic lounge-noir, and, on a cover of Duke Ellington's "Caravan", jungle beats and Carry On Up the Jungle silliness at the same time. It is unique. The only comparison suggested by his mix-and-match methods, and the way his repetitive lyrics crackle through a Vocoder, is that Tenor is Beck on Blackpool Pier. The first two tunes on Tuesday were too close to Butlins ballroom organ-grinding for their own good, but once the Farfisa was augmented by a bassist and drummer, and by Tenor's saxophone playing - on "Nobody's Perfect" he played sax with left hand and keyboards with his right - it looked as if he might single-handedly restore the word "groovy" to popular usage.
Next time you're called upon to defend hip-hop against the charges of propagating misogyny and glorifying violence, one word should suffice: Spearhead. Or, if you're feeling garrulous: Michael Franti. Spearhead are his latest collective - he disposed of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in 1993 - and his work with them should earn him a place in the lyricists' hall of fame. Few songwriters can match the righteous anger and the tempering humanity of his storytelling. Fewer still have the voice to do those qualities justice.
While 1994's Home (Capitol) comprised one classic song after another, this year's Chocolate Supa Highway doesn't have quite as many, and is often diluted by the replacement of live musicians with smooth, overly slick samples. But on Wednesday at the London Astoria 2, Franti was back with a rock-steady funk band, including a sassy female singer with the looks and the vocals to give the Fugees' Lauryn something to worry about.
The loping frontman was expert as ever at mixing the political with the party, and he and his cohorts took on rap's staple audience participation routines with an unmatched level of life and energy, so that when they quietened down for "Tha Payroll (Stay Strong)", a moving narrative of despair set against an edgy acoustic guitar strum, the contrast was crushingly effective.
The extended, self-explanatory but no doubt heart-felt "Ganja Babe" became tedious for those of us who hadn't partaken before, or during, the show. There are already enough Bob Marley-wannabes rapping the praises of Jah and "the 'erb" without Franti joining in. Still, having attended one too many rock concerts at which each ballad was accompanied by an obedient waving of cigarette lighters, I was pleased to see Franti cheekily subverting the ritual. "'Erb smokers, light your lighters," he commanded. The astonishing thing was that only half of the crowd obliged.
Spearhead: Brighton Jazz Bop Festival, 01273 732627, tonight.Reuse content