Rock music: Tricky: coolest jerk of them all
Sunday 24 May 1998
Previous Tricky concerts have wavered between being impenetrable and as dull as ditchwater, but on Thursday all the anger that grumbles in the background of his records elbowed its way New Yorkishly to the fore. A full live band pounded out feverish thrash metal, and Tricky spat and barked his lyrics, instead of mumbling and gargling like he used to (they remained almost entirely impossible to make out, mind you, but it's still a positive development).
What was most heartening about this cathartic performance was that, although its ostensible purpose was to promote Angels With Dirty Faces, it didn't replicate the album at all. Tricky sounded as if he's been sharing a rehearsal studio with Henry Rollins, and looked as if he's been sharing a gym with him, but his experimental sensibility remained. The best song was "Anti Histamine", a stunning mutation of Blondie's "Heart of Glass". The band produced a juddering industrial grind, and Cath Coffey sang with cool langour, oblivious to the madman ranting apoplectically, "Take your clothes off," to her right. He jerked violently from side to side, his head bouncing from one shoulder to the other, as if he were being shaken by an invisible giant, and could stay on his feet only by gripping tightly to the microphone. New York is never like this on Friends.
A few weeks ago, I was posted a publicity shot of Unbelievable Truth, a photo designed to be reproduced in magazines, where it might snag the readers' attention and make them shout, "Yes! I want these people in my life!" Unbelievable Truth's picture depicts the three band members sitting in an anonymous white room. One young man is contemplating the wooden table in front of him. He's looking glum. A second young man is gazing idly into the first young man's left ear. He, too, is decidedly down in the mouth. By way of a contrast, a third young man, wearing a woolly jumper, isn't really focusing on anything. His eyes have glazed over, but he has just enough of a frown to assure us that he is not, and perhaps never has been, in a party mood. There was a long debate in the office about whether or not this photo was ironic. Unbelievable Truth could be parodying a wilfully morose, existential indie group. But no. Now that I've seen them in concert, I'm pretty certain that they didn't explode in a fit of giggles the second after the picture was taken.
The Truth, as I suppose we must call them, play slow, melancholy, country- tinged ballads, wrapped in a soft blanket of acoustic guitars and minor chords. They're like American Music Club with a hint of Jeff Buckley and a dash of Radiohead: Unbelievable Truth's singer/songwriter/ guitarist is Andy Yorke, brother of Radiohead's Thom. As Yorke the elder was getting rich and famous, Yorke the younger was studying Russian literature in Moscow, strumming his guitar in his spare time. And considering that this scenario could be something Graeme Garden would come up with on a Radio 4 comedy panel game having been asked how the saddest song in the world might be composed, then it's to Unbelievable Truth's credit that their debut album, Almost Here (Virgin), isn't depressing at all. You couldn't call it bright and breezy, but the choruses and harmonies are more uplifting than those of many a pop song.
No such luck at the London Astoria 2. The amplification gave the band a harsh, clanking edge, and when the connections between leads and guitars started buzzing, the atmosphere was dissipated completely; the Truth's songs aren't strong enough to stand up without it. Nigel Powell, the drummer, deserves a mention, not just for his keening, REM-style backing vocals, but also for defying the band's policy on sensible haircuts and sporting a Hare Krishna ponytail. Otherwise, the band plodded through a grey, shapeless set with all the flair and dynamism of their publicity photo. Truth, on this occasion, was not beauty.
After all that doom and gloom, a review of Errol Brown was supposed to be a lighthearted "And finally ... " to cheer us all up. What could be more un-Tricky and un-Unbelievable Truth than a night of mindless Seventies nostalgia at the London Palladium? The wedding band Brown had with him weren't a patch on Hot Chocolate at their hottest, and Brown himself was that living contradiction in terms, a barely mobile funk-singer. In a silver suit, he looked utterly ageless - the benefit of being lean, male, black and shaven-headed - but he moved like an arthritic head of state.
All nice and risible, one might think, but these deficiencies had an unexpectedly positive effect: they forced me to focus on the songs. Hot Chocolate aficionados will have to forgive me, but I'd never listened to "Brother Louie" and "Emma" before, never realised that they were bold urban folk ballads that dealt sensitively with suicide, prejudice and broken dreams, while remaining, let's not forget, toe-tapping pop tunes. I'd never noticed, either, how well they're complemented by Brown's startlingly sincere, yearning voice (listen to him cry, "You don't remember me, do you?" on "It Started With a Kiss"). The show built up to the inevitable "You Sexy Thing", but even this has a spirituality which you don't find in many songs with "sex" in the title. Errol Brown: you sexy, yet surprisingly thoughtful, caring and complex thing.
Errol Brown: Empire, W12 (0181 740 7474), Sat.
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