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Pulp in 'better than the Smiths' shock

OVER A decade ago, when Pulp released their debut album, the country fell in love with lonely, Northern, defiantly anti-macho pop. Unfortunately for Cocker & Co, it was the Smiths the country adored, and Pulp were even more ignored than Morrissey is today. Now, in 1995, it can be admitted that Cocker is a better lyricist than Morrissey, and, on the evidence of their newest material, Pulp are better than the Smiths.

In the Leeds Town & Country on Thursday, Cocker was so ecstatic about his recent successes that he almost smiled once. He has headlined Glastonbury, had two singles at number two in the charts and, while narrowly missing 1994's Mercury Music Prize, is surely a contender for 1995's Tony Slattery Award for TV Ubiquity.

No wonder the producers of programmes from Dear Dilemma to Shooting Stars want him on their show. His sex-nerd persona is stamped on all his songs, and it enabled him, when a keyboard malfunction held up an otherwise triumphant concert, to fill time with his meandering chat - as long as the audience came up with a topic. "You'll have to tell me what's happening in the outside world," he deadpanned. "I'm in a band. I travel round in a cocoon. All I know is that I broke my big toenail the other day. That's the news on the front page of the Daily Jarvis."

It's not true, of course. Cocker, more than almost any pop star, has a sharp vision of the outside world from an outsider's point of view: the leisure centres, the settees, the garage up the road, a field in Hampshire. It's these bitter tastes of reality, spiked with lust and single-minded rage, that make his performance so delicious.

And the fact that he dances like a deck-chair which someone is trying to assemble doesn't hurt either.

But one reason that this annus has been so mirabilis for Pulp is that, more and more, the quality of the music matches that of the lyrics. Formerly, the average Pulp song comprised Cocker's mumbling, groaning, yelping and squeaking over a neurotic disco fizz. That was distinctive enough, what with the deranged violin of Russell Senior, and the jumpy bass of Steve Mackey - two men who look as if they shudder at the thought of sunlight, garlic and holy water. But the latest compositions, still echoing Abba, Gloria Gaynor and the Velvet Underground, have timeless pop melodies. Fans can sing Pulp's songs instead of just singing their praises.

Mind you, this development has its downside. On Thursday night I stayed in the same hotel as the band, and was woken at 3am by a gang of Pulpettes in the street outside, trying to attract their heroes' attention by shouting a word-perfect but note-imperfect rendition of "Common People". Now I know why rock stars throw TV sets out of hotel windows.

Black Grape and grey matter wouldn't seem to go together. Even at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on Wednesday, where you might have expected a few English students, fresh from the vac, to deconstruct Shaun Ryder's nonsense lyrics, the crowd were more intent on going mental than on mental stimulation.

But one aspect of Black Grape can test the brain more than Bob Dylan or Brian Eno any day. Namely: what is Bez up to? Who is this freakish wind-up toy who jogs back and forth for the entire concert, miming the doggy-paddle? Why, when the rest of Ryder's erstwhile band are spending Mondays at the dole office, did he elect to keep the questionable services of his skeletal colleague? Is Bez there to make the audience seem less self-conscious about their own inability to dance? Compared with his monkeying, we're all Nureyevs.

My theory is that Black Grape are a perverse parody of Take That, in which the dancers are as integral as the singers. Take That and Tramazi Parti? The comparison is not as blitheringly stupid as it may sound. When Ryder asks, "Don't you fink the band are great? I do," it's not just Mancunian music-hall banter worthy of Gary Barlow, it's also an admission that "the band" are not the same as Black Grape proper; that the hedonistic wonder that is It's Great When You're Straight Yeah (Radioactive) is a studio creation, made so phenomenally exhilarating by the backwards voices and bongos, the snippets of The Troggs Tape here, the female gospel vocals there.

On stage, Black Grape are shrivelled down to Black Raisin, with just a guitar, bass, organ, drum kit and occasional sax. They are a rowdy, punch-drunk funk band: good, but not great.

Next time they should either mime to the record, or bring along a brass section, a backing vocalist, and an extra percussionist, keyboard player and guitarist. Oh, and now that Robbie Williams has left Take That in order to go indie, he could help out Bez with the dancing.

Pulp: Cambridge Corn Exchange, 01223 357851, tonight; Nottingham Rock City, 0115 934 2000, Mon; Leicester De Montfort University, 0116 255 5576, Tues; and touring. Black Grape: Leeds Town & Country, 0113 280 0100, Mon; Birmingham Institute, 0121 643 6103, Tues; and touring.