pop reviews; Belly Astoria, London

"Danger: don't dance on the tables" warn iridescent signs on the balcony, and tonight everyone upstairs wishes they were downstairs. From the moment that Rhode Island pop-rockers Belly saunter on stage, the Astoria becomes a giant funfair: lights flash, helium balloons float ceilingwards, moshers take ride after ride on a sea of hands and the auditorium is one sweaty, bouncy castle. Belly give as good as they get. "Hello, all you cute little wankers," yells bassist Gayle Edwards by way of introduction, and we roar our greetings back.

Singer Tanya Donnelly, a diminutive Monroe in black chiffon, pauses for effect before launching her electric guitar into "Now They'll Sleep". It's the paradox that helps the impact: a woman who looks too darn nice to be singing about lurking demons and unhealthy obsessions. Swaying like a metronome, she croons, sotto voce, "You know the shape my breath will take before I let it out." And proceeds to stomp, Charleston, pace and pogo through songs so adrenalin-fuelled that one airborne punter crash- lands at the feet of lead guitarist Tom Gorman. As searchlights scan the crowd, his brother Chris dons sunglasses to drum the frenetic beats of "Slow Dog", and Edwards - blond hair flailing - gallops in circles.

Their million-selling albums Star and King are released on the ultrahip 4AD label, renowned for an A&R department one step ahead of the Zeitgeist, state-of-the-art graphics and videos, and a stable of sordidly beautiful signings like the Wolfgang Press and the Pixies. Belly's intelligent, sexy pop appeals to an older crowd who wouldn't be seen dead at a Take That concert; one that happily sways its arms, but - no matter how much an ironic Edwards pleads during the sensual "Judas My Heart" - refuses point-blank to get the lighters out. Donnelly might appropriate the same American thrift-shop aesthetic that informs Hole's Courtney Love or Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, but it's a stance that eschews the psychotic cutie image in favour of defences-down joie de vivre.

Looking like four extras from a Hal Hartley film, Belly and their catchy hooks are a radical departure from Donnelly's earlier downbeat collaborations with her half-sister Kristin Hersh in the stark, atonal Throwing Muses. The bleak imagery (rotting dogs, decapitated dolls, bee-stung tongues) remains. But combined with heavy-duty instrumentals that rock out and feed back, her melodies-through-the-mayhem ensure songs both hummable and powerful.

A new track, "Lilith", starts ethereally, and Edwards clasps her hands in mock prayer. Donnelly's honeyed voice unfurls on the acoustic-guitar solo "Sweet Ride", and then it's back to basics. Feverishly strumming, the two women rest their heads on each other's shoulders during the hit single "Feed the Tree". After all, it's exhausting being this good. Belly play a tight, perfectly crafted set. Their rock-chick antics - duelling guitars, sarcastic Satanic gestures - reinvest cliches with energy and spontaneity. And isn't that what pop's all about?

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