ROCK; Eccentric Icelandic warbler in mass popularity shock

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Indy Lifestyle Online
NO WONDER Bjork lost her voice on her recent American tour. Considering how cruelly she treats it, she should have been mute for years. At Wembley Arena on Thursday, she tried to beat it into submission, testing its unique superpowers to their limits as if thinking: "OK, you could handle that shriek ... let's see what you make of this growl."

She put on the same show as she did a few months ago at the Reading Festival, and which was reviewed here at the time. But to recap: Bjork is enlightening and light-hearted, Icelandic and outlandish. Her four musicians stay in the background - very wise when you consider the speed at which she springs around. She has acres of stage, and a catwalk projecting into the crowd - and still you wonder if there's enough room.

Musically, she tiptoes, frolics, skips and jumps across boundaries. You'd call her a true rock 'n' roll rebel, except that she appears less deliberately rebellious than completely unaware of the rules that constrain even the most iconoclastic punks. Discordant verses fly us away to scary, unknown landscapes; then poppy choruses welcome us back, exhausted and exhilarated, to comfortable territory. "Venus as a Boy" is dressed in harpsichord frills, "Hyper-ballad" is decked out in bongos, accordion, and assorted bleeps and whistles. The arrangements are so extraordinary that they make her studio albums sound conventional: as conventional as the albums of any other mainstream chart act.

Because that is what is most amazing. Five years ago, if you had peered into the future and seen this concert, you'd never have believed that it was by a commercial pop star. But Bjork sells millions of records, wins Brit Awards, and her electrifying charisma has arenas of 12,000 people cheering ("Sink chew," she replies). And yet we shouldn't underestimate her weirdness. We shouldn't underestimate her, full stop.

The London Astoria is packed. Brat-packed, to be precise. Even if you took away the journalists, publicists, record executives, transvestite comedians and members of Dodgy and Menswear, you'd still be left with quite a few people. The occasion is the arrival of NME's Brat Bus, a Fifties-style package tour of four young bands about to take the world by storm. Overall, you had to wonder if it were a storm in a teacup. Did these retro rockers really represent the future? What exactly was "alternative" or "indie" about them compared to the supposedly middle-of-the-road Brits?

The opening act was a London all-girl four-piece, Fluffy, who are probably the best looking band there has ever been. Physical attractiveness counts for a lot in pop. But it seems to count for everything in Fluffy. On the evidence of the tense, stiff drumming, for instance, I doubt the group auditioned 20 candidates and judged their current drummer to be the best.

The Go-Gos for the supermodel generation, Fluffy play Ramones/Buzzcocks style punk-pop: fast, fun, but as yet utterly indistinctive. It's possible they were just rehearsing the same song over and over again during the entire set, but they still hadn't got it quite right by the end.

Fluffy are reputedly Courtney Love's favourite band, and the singer has Love's snarling rasp. At the moment, though, the group just look embarrassed. Before they convince us they're any good, they'll have to convince themselves. If they do make it, school-playground debates about the merits of the blonde versus the brunette will rage with a heat that hasn't been felt since the passing of Abba.

Once you've heard Heavy Stereo, you'll never compare Oasis to Status Quo again. Heavy Stereo haven't just stolen the Quo's music, they've made off with their faded, saggy-kneed jeans, and nipped next door to clean out Marc Bolan's house while they're at it. Burglary is a crime that leaves its victims depressed and enraged, and in this case the victims were the audience. Heavy Stereo's chunky guitar rock was so traditional that I only just resisted the urge to belt up the street to the Virgin Megastore and buy some jungle CDs, just to remind myself which decade we're in.

The band's record company is Creation, home of Oasis, Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub, so it's only to be expected that their influences couldn't be more obvious if they stacked their record collections on stage. On the other hand, we should also expect them to add something of their own - and after a song or two they do.

They have the lumbering, swaggering confidence of a drunk, a Bourbon- voiced front man, some effective ballads and some creditable lyrics ("Living in a house/ With your mates and a mouse/ Living in a flat/ With a girl and a cat"). A lot better than expected, even if Creation should be renamed Revival.

The only vaguely unusual group were the Cardigans. They have a head start in that department, being Swedish. You couldn't get a bassist with a jumper, big glasses and a Garth-from-Wayne's-World haircut like that anywhere else.

The Cardigans are a lot more fluffy than Fluffy, specialising in twinkling indie easy-listening, with a sugary keyboard and a singer, Nina Persson, who has no qualms about tweeting "do be do be do". Their acclaimed album, Life (Stockholm), has oddball charm, but easy listening is often more accurately termed easy ignoring. Several songs tonight reminded you that rock'n'roll was invented to combat this kind of thing.

Top of the bill, and rightly so, were the Bluetones. This unkempt Hounslow four-piece were touted as last year's Next Big Thing, but their Estimated Time of Big Thingness was postponed to 1996. This time it looks as if they'll meet the deadline. They pack a powerful Britpop punch, but with an obliqueness that's not found in the current heavyweight contenders: all structural complexities and song titles that you can never find in the lyrics (although that might have been because a rival band had taken over the mixing desk, it seemed, and were burying Mark Morriss's voice under heaps of distortion).

The Bluetones have a talent big enough to burst out of any pigeonhole in which they're wedged, but some reference points are the Boo Radleys, Suede back when they had Bernard Butler on guitar, or the Stone Roses back when they had tunes. Tonight, the Bluetones weren't the Next Big Thing, they were the current one.