ROCK: Go on Paul, give it a bit of Weller

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some music gives your earlobes a light caress, some music cracks you over the head with a sledgehammer. The music of Paul Weller (Cheltenham Town Hall, Thurs) gets you into a brawl. "The Changing Man" and "Peacock Suit" pack a punch, but most of his material is less insistent, preferring to pull your jumper over your head and shove you around. They're scuffed, rough, sweaty songs, not clean or clear - and not at all like Eric Clapton's, as The Face's anti-Weller campaign had it.

Appropriately, Weller reacts to the slightest slight by phoning the journalist responsible and inviting them over for a kicking - a radical idea for a BT commercial, perhaps. The dedication of his new album, Heavy Soul (Island) sums up his feelings: "To all my people, you know and so do I. To anyone whosoever slated me - f*** you." If only his lyrics were as succinct. If you don't like Weller, it seems, you're not worthy of liking him - which means that he doesn't have to concern himself with the question of why he might have been slated in the first place. He can stick with the rough-hewn, masculine R&B of Steve Winwood and Van Morrison knowing that "his people" won't object.

But I should watch what I say. Having witnessed Weller in action, I don't fancy being asked to step outside. Get into a fight with the Modfather and he might well stab you with that sharp nose of his, or lacerate you with a cheekbone or a jutting lower lip. Best leave the brawling to the music.

In the period since 1993's Wild Wood took Weller out of the wilderness, he has stripped down his live band to a lean fighting unit. Gone are the female backing vocalists and the fulltime keyboard player; gone, even, is the colourful lead guitar of Ocean Colour Scene's Steve Cradock. Even with Weller playing some acoustic guitar and piano, this is no-frills stuff, and whether a song's tone is nominally nostalgic or romantic or bitter has no bearing on how hard Steve White thumps his drums or how violently Weller shakes his head.

The huffing, puffing tone soon gets tiresome, but one still comes away from a Weller gig respecting him, both for his passion and energy, and for the fact that "his people" tend to be a decade younger than he is. One of those people sneaks onto a balcony above his hero's head and clambers onto a giant speaker. Weller, well and truly upstaged, laughs and applauds at the show's undoubted visual highlight, so maybe he's not such a grouch after all.

If he likes to imagine cabals of rock hacks plotting the downfall of whichever noble artist is too talented for their petty egos to bear, it's more likely that critics will try to say the opposite of their peers, in an effort to broaden a debate, shed some new light on a subject, and generally draw attention to themselves. So I'd love to be able to say something new about Embrace, widely touted as rock's next big thing.

It's not easy. The band's singer and guitarist are two Northern brothers, hence a flurry of Oasis comparisions, and a answering flurry of charges of lazy journalism. To be fair to lazy journalists for a moment, we probably wouldn't make the comparison if Embrace could name just one band who sounded more like them than Oasis do. Never mind the family details. We could be told that Embrace's two EPs were the solo work of a public schoolboy from Tunbridge Wells, and "One Big Family" would still be an Oasish terrace chant propelled by a bullying, overdriven guitar squall (and a more convincing single than "D'you Know What I Mean" it is, too). Is it really the journalists who are being lazy?

What separates Embrace from the other members of the Oasis Impersonators Union is their ability. As the b-sides of No Way Sis's novelty single demonstrated, sounding like the Gallaghers is one thing, but writing songs like Noel's is another. The brothers McNamara just about pull it off. In addition, their arrangements are more adventurous than Oasis's, and their own identity is bolstered by their sombre, ghostly ballads. "Now You're Nobody" may resemble a Beatles song, but it's a Beatles song covered by the Tindersticks.

If Embrace have an obvious weakness, it has already been pithily pinpointed by Noel Gallagher: "The c*** wants to take singing lessons." Noel was in the audience at Embrace's gig at the ICA on Wednesday, the first of a three-night run, and besides chuckling at Danny McNamara's so-you-think- Liam-looks-bored-onstage de- meanour, he must have been pleased by his own perspicacity. McNamara's flat drone was the one ingredient that spoilt the Northern broth: you may have the songs of Oasis and the Charlatans, but if you've got the singer of the Stone Roses, you'll come across as a middling college band.

The vocals on the full-throttle rockers were serviceable, but they were painfully off-key during the ballads - and there were plenty of those. To undermine the Oasis comparison again, Embrace look less like car- stealing lads than sensitive waifs, and slow songs made up the majority of their set. A bold ratio, but their material needed to be even better to make that ratio work. On Wednesday, Embrace's problem was that they didn't sound like Oasis enough.

Still, the show contained an unexpected treat in the shape of the support band, Superstar. This Scottish four-piece have a future guitar hero in their ranks, and their gorgeous songs are like David Bowie classics with extra soul. If you've ever wondered whether Radiohead would be the success they are if their lead singer were an awkward, fat, ginger bloke in a short-sleeved tablecloth-tartan shirt - and I'm sure we all have, from time to time - then watch Superstar's career over the next year or so. I hope the answer's yes, because by the sound of things, the band have nearly completed their equivalent of The Bends.

Paul Weller: Southend Cliffs Pavilion (01702 351135), Mon; Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall (01303 253193), Wed; Poole Arts Ctr (01202 685222), Thurs; Crystal Palace Sports Ctr (0990 2255660, Sat.