Rock: Stuka in the middle with you

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The opening three minutes of Primal Scream's show are a barrage. The group slope on, the lights come up, and then the back-projection machine kicks ass. Stukas dive-bomb, students get clobbered on an American campus, GIs raise the stars and stripes on Iwo Jima, Malcolm X makes a speech, Syd Barrett looks dopey, there are more Stukas, Salvador Dali looks mad, hot-panted African-Americans pose with submachine guns, Elvis's legs wobble, township protectors protest, Seventies people have sex, James Brown collapses in a heap, and then, after a few more Stukas, there is a brief extract from a Soviet public health film on the dangers of dental plaque.

Oddly, in this catalogue of the imagery of oppression and redemption, there is no reference to the Spice Girls or devolution. In fact there is no reference to anything at all from the last 20 years, unless you count the township bit. As inventories go, Primal Scream's is the sort that'll have you reaching for your old videos of the The Rock'n'Roll Years. It is history edited down to make a neat visual accompaniment to a great soundtrack - only in this case, the imagery has been sterilised by overexposure, and the soundtrack isn't that great. Primal Scream make clever, sprawling records that pillage rock's septic tank for anything that smells ripe but hasn't been completely devoured by bacteria.

Last time out, they did a breezy job on the Rolling Stones; on the new album, Vanishing Point, they've re- integrated themselves with the values evinced on the award-winning Screamadelica to make a fist of being both traditionally rocky and - dare one breathe it - eclectically postmodern.

But eclectic postmodernism in pop music doesn't always make for a thrilling live experience. It was not possible from my position on Tuesday at the Manchester Apollo to see a drummer, which might explain why the noise the group made lacked drive, lift and spontaneity. They stood in two rows - two guitarists, bass and Bobby Gillespie in front; horns and keyboards behind - and waited for each new rhythm to kick in, then hauled themselves on to its back like tourists on to a donkey. The beast would then lumber off on a preordained circuit before unloading again at the point of embarkation. In front of it, the audience heaved modestly while American muscle cars combusted on the screens above.

The problem might have been one of perspective, of course. It's possible that fast-moving images of Elvis, Vietnam, Black Power and Soviet dentistry constitute vital new evidence of the imminent decline of the West, but you'd have had to have been born around the time Lady Di got married to get much of a buzz out of them or their gallumphing new soundtrack. It was certainly to their credit that the audience was young enough to rock but too young to have watched The Rock'n'Roll Years. Bobby Gillespie is 33.

God alone knows how old Terry Hall is. It certainly seems a lifetime since he was the original mod Steerpike, a hump of inertly malignant bashfulness around which The Specials hopped like iron filings. He's worn well, though, if his appearance at London's Hanover Grand on Monday was any indication. There's a little more flesh to his Vulcan features, and his posture hasn't improved, but nearly two decades of intermittent substardom have not withered him. "Can you imagine what it must be like to be in Oasis?" he mused gloomily at one point. "Shit, I should think." He then sang one of his songs "about pain and misery". It's a new direction, he said, both arms straight down by his side while the smoke from his cigarette curled into a twitching eye.

In fact it's amazing just how many of Terry's tunes it's possible to recognise, even if you can't put a title to all of them. What's nice about them is that they usually have classically organised, lilting melodies, and are invariably about alienation, disappointment and the need to turn up the TV to cover the snoring of your companions. These he sings in a halting but really quite pretty tenor, while his four-piece guitar band arpeggiate tidily, not unlike the Lightning Seeds (who, incidentally, supplied the bass player plus Ian Broudie to share in a downbeat encore of "Lucky You").

It's hard to know why anyone should want to go to a Terry Hall show, unless it's to see how his eyebrows are doing. But I was glad I did. Especially when he did that wounded thing he does with his face, where he presses his lips together, frowns, looks down, sighs, looks up, suffers a bit and then turns away.

If self-involvement is an unwanted black dog in Terry's life, it's a fluffy white poodle on Paula Cole's lap. She can't keep her hands off the thing. In fact, as she says in one song, she wants to be a dog. To be fair, she did conceive this desire a while back, in response to breaking her foot at high school. The trauma precluded her from being a cheerleader, giving rise to intense suffering and resulting in the discovery of what she really wanted to do with her life.

What she did with it at Shepherd's Bush Empire on Wednesday was tricksy chamber art-pop of amazing solipsism, with added ballet movements and theatrical poses. She is an accomplished musician, and a singer who can blow out while sucking in. But her songs are so unrelentingly self- dramatising that one fears for her well-being should stardom not accrue.

Then again, maybe she'll be fine. To introduce a particularly histrionic number, Paula explained how, during one arduous passage of her life, she "found" a song that changed everything and saved her from total despair. "This song?" she said, "was like finding a diamond in the mud. This song ... is called ... 'Me'."

Nicholas Barber returns next week.

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