Rock: Saint Etienne almost get into the party spirit

DEPENDING ON which Saint Etienne fan you speak to, Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley can take the credit/blame for Britpop, Eurodisco, neo-lounge music, the Sixties film-theme revival, the indie-dance crossover, or any combination of the above. And maybe that's why they're not as successful as you'd expect. They're an oddity, neither one thing nor the other, and while bands from Air to the Cardigans have done well for themselves by focusing on one ingredient of the recipe each, Saint Etienne's sophisticated blend of Eighties electropop, kitschy orchestration and grey British lyrics about burnt toast and cold coffee has always been too confused to be wholly satisfying. The music tends to sound as if it's spent too much time hanging around with the glum lyrics. Try as it might to be fluffy and fun, it's too tired and undernourished to get into the party spirit.

Saint Etienne's new album, Good Humor (Creation), is their warmest, brightest and most substantial so far, and at Bristol University on Wednesday they were sounding bigger and better still: the music has been eating its greens and making regular trips to the gym since the last time they toured.

"The Bad Photographer" was pumped up by tough, almost Blur-like guitar chords, "People Get Real" was carried along on rolling waves of keyboard noise, and "He's on the Phone" had developed into a disco epic worthy of Blondie. Saint Etienne have hired a full live band, and they've certainly got their money's worth. The drummer, the guitarist and the Richard Ashcroft lookalike on bass competed to see who could hit their instruments the hardest, and two backing singers shimmied, posed, laughed and bashed tambourines as if this were the most glorious night of their lives. I am convinced they once used to be half of Bucks Fizz, so I expect they were just excited to be back in the pop limelight.

The only downside to having such a sterling bunch of musicians on board is that they throw the deficiencies of the core trio into sharp relief. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs stooped over two synthesisers each, but they left all the difficult electric piano solos to another keyboard player at the back of the stage. And Sarah Cracknell seemed worried that the backing singers were sniggering at her behind her back. She never looked as if her mind was on what she was doing, and she was too self-conscious to dance for more than two seconds before stopping to fiddle with her hair. Her vocals were semi-detached, too. "I've never felt so good/ I've never felt so strong," she sang on "Nothing Can Stop Us". If that's true, I'd hate to see her when she's feeling peaky.

This lack of engagement could be a miscalculated effort to be icily cool, but as long as she refuses to give herself up to the music, it's difficult for the rest of us to do the same. At the end, she thanked the audience for their enthusiasm. "Cheered me up a treat, you have," she said. Yes, well, but isn't it her job to cheer us up?

The Garage in north London is so tiny, it should be renamed the Potting Shed. But on Monday night there was plenty of room for everyone: it looks as if Superstar's name will continue to be ironic for the near future. Why this might be is not exactly a mystery. On "Superstar" (covered on Rod Stewart's forthcoming album, no less), Joe McAlinden sings, "Don't want to put on a show," and, believe me, it's a sentiment that comes from the heart. Even writing a set list seems to be too much of a stretch. The band were often unsure which song they were doing next, and their random approach to the running order meant that we got a wearying number of songs, one after another, of the same pace (slow to middling) and mood (fraught to nervous breakdown).

It's not just that you don't get any more from seeing Superstar in concert than you do from putting on their new album, Palm Tree (Camp Fabulous): it's that you get less. At home, you can flick through a magazine while the record's on; at a gig you have to look at four men as unglamorous and unstylish as an ancient by-law require Glaswegian bands to be. It's a shame, because McAlinden's tender, lavish songs fulfil the promise of the band's name and more. Big of melody and bigger of heart, and well-served by McAlinden's trembling falsetto, these anthemic tearjerkers come half-way between Radiohead and Bernard Butler. In a fairer world, the Garage would have been half-empty just because so many Superstar fans were at home listening to the album.

Three nights later, and the Garage was so crowded and so meltingly hot that everyone inside was ready to collapse - not that that's an unusual state of affairs for Royal Trux. The band and their music are always on the verge of crumpling into a heap. Like Boss Hog and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Royal Trux crawled from the wreckage of fabled New York racket-makers, Pussy Galore, so it will come as no surprise that their bewilderingly highly acclaimed new album, Accelerator (Domino) is an unruly, unholy blast of junk rock, recorded on a Sony Walkman under a blanket in a cupboard. Onstage, they prefer to strip away this glossy production and get back to basics. Take "Juicy Juicy Juice", for example: a violent drum-beat, a trashy guitar riff, and Jennifer Herrema - her arms mummified with insulation tape, a stetson pulled down to her chin, and a silver belt-buckle you could carry a round of drinks on - squawking "Juicy, Juicy, Juice!" Change the title, and, therefore, most of the lyrics, and you've got all of their other songs.

Yes, you're right. Royal Trux would be quite pathetic, except that they write surprisingly catchy rock'n'roll tunes which it's tempting to describe as classics. The band could be filling venues 10 times the size of the Garage if they cleaned up their sound (and themselves), and you have to admire them for refusing to do so. I think.

Royal Trux: Brighton Cybar (01273 384280), tonight.

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