Pop: Justified confidence

theaudience 100 Club, London


100 Club, London

"Our next song won the alternative Eurovision Song Contest last night," chirped Sophie Ellis Bextor, with the tiniest hint of a smile. "We're so thrilled." Oh to be that nonchalant. After only three singles. A handful of headlining gigs. And at the age of 19. Setting herself up for a fall, tutted the cynics - she'll soon be going the way of other nascent pop stars with attitude aplenty, but a low reserve of talent. But if Wednesday night's performance was a con trick, the audience (yes, the real one) seemed happy to be taken in.

But then the thing about is that they can seem too good to be true, calculated to be a talking-point. The avant-garde syntax of their name, perhaps, something to cause righteous anger in devotees of Fowler's Modern English Usage. Or the oh-so-ironic name itself. Or the fact that they are fronted by a singer whose face is hewn from purest marble and who has a voice with a power and richness that echoes Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, Edith Piaf. Or that the songwriter is practically old enough to be Ellis Bextor's dad, and oh, by the way, her mum was the Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis - you know, the one of the celebrated pregnancy scandal, but no, that wasn't Sophie in utero, or she'd be only 10 now.

All this, though, cannot detract from 's very tangible qualities. Their music is soaring and dramatic, glamorous without being tacky, alive to a world of influences but never a pastiche. "You and Me on the Run" opened the set, and embraced a host of seemingly contradictory styles: New Romantic, mid-Seventies Kraut-rock, the Go-Gos, urged along by sci- fi synthesiser arpeggios that would have felt at home on a Rush album.

The band's songwriter, Billy Reeves, played the rock guitarist role to perfection, as if he were Pete Townshend playing with the Housemartins, a frenzy of angular, exaggerated licks, pogoing and maniacal grins. In contrast to the instrumentalists' transparent delight at being on stage (and being able to indulge a predilection for a good rock-out every now and again), Ellis Bextor remained impassive, surveying the 100 Club as if privy to some arcane knowledge.

To label music "intelligent" is often a thinly-veiled insult, suggesting that it lacks soul and visceral energy, or that it tries to take pop to places where it was never intended to go. But 's songs, whether about revenge, beauty, the fickleness of the music industry or growing up, are a refreshing change from the narrow vision of bloke rock, which rejoices in its own articulateness.

Not since Brian Eno twiddled dials for Roxy Music or Rick Wakeman overdid keyboards for Yes have some of Wednesday night's noises been heard on stage. And rarely has a song of the ambition of "I Got the Wherewithal" been written, let alone sung with such easy poise.

Mark Wilson

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