Rock: After this experience, you'll be Spiritualized too

Instead of being sold in the usual easy-crack Perspex box, the new CD by Spiritualized comes in a prescription medicine packet. The sleevenotes, on a folded piece of paper, list the possible side-effects, while the disc itself lodges aspirin-style in a dimpled white plastic tray, sealed in foil. Whether Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space (Dedicated) is deemed the Album of the Year remains to be seen, but as for Packaging of the Year - no contest.

If Spiritualized's drifting, droning music can sound as if the band were on medication while making it, the box gives an indication of how much attention Jason "Spaceman" Pierce, the band's singer/songwriter/producer, paid to every second of his 70-minute meisterwerk; and the show at the London Astoria on Monday had its share of loving care, too. It was opened by an a cappella quartet on a podium at the back of the stage, putting the spiritual into Spiritualized by chanting a gospel refrain, "Oh happy day," over and over again. An ironic contrast with the mood of Ladies and Gentlemen ... perhaps? A reminder that Spiritualized's taste for endless repetition has its provenance in the very roots of rock'n'roll? Or just some fantastic singing? I'd plump for all of the above.

The six-piece band then took the stage under cover of semi-darkness, and played "Cop Shoot Cop" - a song which lasts 17 minutes on the record. Pierce and his fellow guitarist bent notes to produce little moans not heard since the days of the Doors and the Velvet Underground (it's arguable that Pierce has based his entire career on "Heroin" by the Velvets) and the venue dissolved into a pulsing - but tuneful - haze.

Now and then Spiritualized exploded in a cacophony of harmonica squeals and deranged guitar noise, with accompanying retina-melting banks of white lights, before subsiding again into hypnotic, tidal rhythms. "Floating in space" didn't seem so hard a concept to imagine, all of a sudden, even for those of us who had partaken of nothing stronger than a can of Red Stripe. Spiritualized's omission from the Trainspotting soundtrack was unforgiveable, although one of their songs was used in a recent Toffee Crisp commercial, which is some compensation.

Somewhere in the middle of the concert, though, the "may cause drowsiness" warning on the prescription packet seemed more accurate than the album title. Spiritualized's liquefied swirl was worryingly close to "Jazz Odyssey" territory, and the audience was forced to amuse itself by spotting B-list Britpop celebrities (from where I was standing I could see guitarists from Elastica, Menswear, Lush, Echobelly and Kenickie).

But these periods didn't last. The punk jolt of "Electricity" proved that Spiritualized have more than one gear; and those lyrics which weren't about pharmaceuticals were direct and lovelorn enough to pull Spaceman's music back to a relatively nearby planet.

The gospel quartet returned for the last three songs, to particularly wonderful effect on "I Think I'm in Love". On the album, Pierce sings the whole track himself. In concert, he drawled the hopeful first line of each couplet ("Think I'm your friend") and the quartet chorused the cynical answer ("Probably just lonely"). The song then segued back to "Oh Happy Day", this time with the band playing along, before the quartet were left onstage alone for the exultant finale. Spiritualized spoilt it by returning for an encore, of course, but that always happens.

Speaking of rock concert rituals, the futile habit of calling out requests moved into a new era at Mark Eitzel's show on Wednesday, with the introduction of the Audience Debate and the Anti-Request. " 'Live or Die!' " yelled somebody in one shadowy corner of Islington's Union Chapel.

"No, none of that shit!" countered a voice from a pew round the corner.

Roughly translated, the exchange went as follows: "Play a track from your new album, West (Warner), which was co-written and co-produced by Peter Buck, the guitarist of REM."

"No, those songs sound too much like REM. I prefer the material you recorded when you were leader of American Music Club, the acclaimed cult band from San Francisco."

I'm with Fan No1. I'm glad to see Eitzel's sales being boosted by a few hundred thousand curious REM fans; and I'm happy for Buck to have the opportunity to work with a singer whose lyrics make some sort of sense. Besides, Eitzel has always had his similarities with REM's Michael Stipe: the way they stretch and arc their voices, as if yawning; the way they sometimes seem to be making up the tunes as they go along. Ironically, however, the melodies that are co-written with Buck are less tortuous than those which Eitzel writes on his own.

Still, they're a funny lot, Mark Eitzel fans. They adore him when he mumbles incoherently and tunes his guitar for five minutes at a stretch. They love him when he breaks off from a song because he's got the time signature wrong. And, because the concert took place in a church, he was able to elicit applause simply by burping and swearing. I'm not sure how the fans square this with their admiration of him as a profound, sensitive artist, but for me, his jokey name for his band, The Mark Eitzel Ordeal, was close to the truth.

The self-conscious amateurism is annoying not just because it's such a cheap way of establishing a rapport with the audience, but also because it's unnecessary. When he gets down to it, Eitzel is a startling showman. He doesn't have much of a voice, but he pushes what he does have to its limits, pouring on the anguish until he is half-roaring, half-sobbing; and falling to one knee, like a bull expecting the matador's coup de grace.

Peter Buck - who played for half of the set in a band that included the Screaming Trees' drummer and American Music Club's bassist - confined himself to slow-motion twisting and crouching, just as he does with REM. He played much the same riffs as he does with REM, too. More importantly, his presence got the guitar out of Eitzel's fumbling hands, so that the singer could spend less time tuning and more time performing. Every Eitzel fan should thank Buck for that.

Record reviews: page 15.

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